2020 Election, Trump, Uncategorized

Fantasy Land…

The essential objective of the Republican Party for the next five months is to rewrite the history of the last three and a half years. The strategy is to throw up so much flak that distorts or revises reality that by election day enough voters are so thoroughly confused or so supremely disgusted that they won’t vote, concluding American democracy is just not worth the bother. 

The GOP strategy is driven from top by a cult figure who, as conservative columnist Max Boot wrote recently, doubles as the “unhinged conspiracy-monger in the White House.”

Americans have for a long time, and very strangely, been suspectable to conspiracy theories. But now the old, standard wacky notions – the moon landing was faked, extraterrestrials landed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, Elvis is still alive – have given way to conspiracy theory as politics.  

If it’s in the local paper it must be true – right?

“Classically, conspiracy theories are propagated by people on the margins – they’re almost a weapon of the powerless, for holding the powerful to account,” says Russell Muirhead, a political scientist at Dartmouth College who has studied this American fixation with the nutty. “But right now the new stuff is coming directly from the powerful, which is really quite extraordinary.”

Donald Trump’s obsession with conspiracies provides both insight into his lack of character, as well his re-election strategy. Given his criminally botched response to a deadly pandemic that left 100,000 American dead in barely two months, while tanking the economy, perhaps for years, the Conspirator-in-Chief can hardly run on his record. He must shift attention to keep his most committed supporters both entertained and distracted from reality. 

Trump’s one-time chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who also once headed Breitbart News, a website cesspool of half-baked nonsense and rightwing propaganda, perfectly described the GOP strategy in 2018. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon told the writer Michael Lewis. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

And that is precisely what Trump has been doing while his willing enablers, including the timid souls Idaho voters dispatch to represent them in Washington, D.C., stand by mute amid the fetid garbage. 

Trump, of course, rode to real political prominence peddling the fake news that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. Many of his supporters bought the “birther” nonsense, and some still do. They also bought that Mexico would pay for his wall and that China would pay for his tariffs. Initially they bought his claim that the COVID-19 virus was “a hoax,” but clearly some conspiracy theories get overtaken by events. 

Barack Obama’s birth certificate – from Hawaii

Now Trump is asking them to buy the hoax that voting by mail will lead to vast corruption of the electoral process, a convenient claim for a guy who lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes in 2016 and will need a spectacularly outrageous conspiracy theory to justify his loss in November. 

The man the Internet whit Dave Pell calls “the Cloroxymoron” has, of course, had to manufacture new conspiracies as the old ones run out of steam. There is “Obamagate,” a conspiracy so deep and impenetrable that the White House press secretary declined to respond to a question about just what it was. Then came the spectacularly obscene charge emitting from the presidential Twitter feed that former Republican congressman and cable TV host Joe Scarborough may have murdered a young female staff member in 2001.

That odious one drew a poignant response from the woman’s husband who correctly accused the Republican president of having taken “something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain.” 

In debunking the Scarborough nonsense, the Washington Post’s Craig Pittman might have been talking about the gutless lack of decency on the part of Idahoans like Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen. Mike Crapo, Republicans who know Scarborough because they served in Congress with him when he represented Florida. 

 “Trump’s tweets offer a reminder of the remarkable nature of the Trump era — that a sitting president can traffic in incendiary and false allegations while the political world around him remains largely silent, accustomed to Trump’s modern-day definition of presidential behavior,” Pittman wrote. “As with many such eruptions from the White House, there will probably be little if any consequence beyond, in this case, the collateral suffering of a private family in Florida.”

At this point let’s note that a recent Yahoo/YouGov poll reported that “44 percent of Republicans believe that Bill Gates is plotting to use a mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign as a pretext to implant microchips in billions of people and monitor their movements.” Yahoo News felt compelled to note that is “a widely debunked conspiracy theory with no basis in fact.” 

That kind of statistic does, however, help explain why once sensible, fair minded guys like Crapo and Simpson now behave as they do in our Age of Trump. They have become paralyzed with the fear that the most fever swampish in the GOP base will turn on them. 

It’s a reasonable fear. After all Oregon Republicans just nominated a U.S. Senate candidate who is a believer in the wacky QAnon conspiracy theories that promote Trump as a world savior, while Idaho Republicans like Janice McGeachin and Heather Scott have become the party’s modern day “Know Nothings.” 

A conspiracy so immense…

Some of the president’s most loyal followers – and most fervent conspiratorialists – have taken to calling Trump the “God Emperor,” but this emperor’s clothes are missing even if the two Mikes and so many others ignore the reality. Their essential cowardness exposes the profound ethical and moral rot in the modern GOP under Trump. It will follow them all their days. 

“We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered,” David Frum wrote in his 2018 book Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, has basically given up on the silent majority of GOP officeholders who have aided and abetted the intellectual destruction of their party. 

“What happens next is up to you,” Frum writes, knowing that once principled conservatives like Simpson and Crapo, unable or unwilling to exercise leadership at a time of peril, will do nothing, while cowering in a corner literally and figuratively clutching their seats.

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Additional reading:

Trump: The Manly Man 

Conservative commentator Tom Nichols writes in The Atlantic that the president is the least manly man to ever occupy the Oval Office, and the mostly white men who support him make up a cult-like following that has an image of Donald Trump divorced from reality. Nichols writes: “Perhaps Howard Stern, of all people, said it best: ‘The oddity in all of this is the people Trump despises most, love him the most. The people who are voting for Trump for the most part … He’d be disgusted by them.’ The tragedy is that they are not disgusted by him in return.”

The Manly Man?

Masha Gessen on Rising Authoritarianism

I try to read everything the historian and essayist Masha Gessen writes, both for her insights into the rise of authoritarianism in the world, but also because she brings an immigrant’s perspective to our current moment. Gessen was born in Russia and wrote an excellent book explaining Vladimir Putin. She spoke recently with Interview magazine.

INTERVIEW: What is the worst-case scenario for the future? 

GESSEN: A renewal and reinforcement of all kinds of borders—national, state, regional, whatever. We try to go back to exactly the way things were, and this means that the poor get poorer and the wealth gap grows. Two areas that are perhaps most in need of awakening and reinvention—healthcare and education—become worse versions of their already terrible selves. We learn nothing except that no one will help you.

Read the entire interview

New York Without Newspapers in 1945

For 17 days in the summer of 1945 newspaper deliverymen went on strike. “All told, 14 major papers were left without their usual means of distribution. According to an estimate in the New York Times, some 13 million customers in the city and surrounding area were deprived of their daily newspaper.”

This is a cool story about a time when most Americans got all there news in a paper.

The Man in the Red Coat

And finally…I’ve been reading a slightly strange, yet deeply interesting book by Julian Barnes about some truly fascinating characters of what we now call “the Belle Epoque.”

The Princess of Monaco said Dr. Pozzi was “disgustingly handsome”

“Barnes’s title comes from a magnificent full-length 1881 portrait of [Dr. Samuel] Pozzi by John Singer Sargent, which didn’t re-emerge into public view until 1990; Barnes tells us that viewing it was the original inspiration for this book. Sargent himself mentioned it in a letter to Henry James in London to introduce a visit from ‘Dr. S. Pozzi, the man in the red gown (not always), a very brilliant creature.'”

Highly recommended for the profiles of Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt and a cast of other “beautiful” people.

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Thanks for reading. If you are inclined share or recommend this post to a friend. Stay safe.

2020 Election, Foreign Policy, Trump

America’s Retreat…

The United States, the acknowledged world leader in the post-World War II era, is in retreat and decline. Among America’s closest international friends the deterioration of our country’s standing is simply astounding. In a recent survey of our once closest European allies only 28% of the residents of the United Kingdom said the U.S. would act responsibly in the world. In France, 3% – you read that correctly – think the U.S. is best positioned to confront global challenges. 

That this disastrous retreat has taken place under a Republican administration and with a GOP-controlled Senate is a stark reminder of how far Donald Trump’s Republican Party has retreated from the place Ronald Reagan once proclaimed the “shining city on a hill.” 

A portion of Ronald Reagan’s farewell speech in January 1989 as printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The number two Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, actually said the quiet part out loud this week, admitting that Trump not only owns the GOP soul, but apparently more importantly has also squeezed the last ounce of independence from his frightened lackeys. “I just think that everybody realizes that our fortunes sort of rise or fall together,” Thune said as he placed a priority on re-election at the expense of absolutely everything else. 

As capable as the president has been of destroying U.S. credibility and puncturing the myth of American exceptionalism, he didn’t get us here all by himself. He had a lot of help from this feckless, rudderless, incompetent collection of Republican senators and members of Congress. And no one wears the feckless label more notably than Idaho’s Jim Risch, who, in title only, sits atop the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A comprehensive listing of Trumpian ineptitude in the foreign policy arena, combined with the willful rejection of critical allies and international institutions, would fill a library shelf, so consider just the most recent examples of America trashing itself with Republican approval. 

Anyone with a sense of how political leadership works would have known that a crisis like a global pandemic would lay bare Trump’s unfitness. “Trump’s handling of the pandemic at home and abroad has exposed more painfully than anything since he took office the meaning of America First,” says William Burns, a 33-year career foreign policy professional who now heads the Carnegie Endowment. “America is first in the world in deaths, first in the world in infections and we stand out as an emblem of global incompetence. The damage to America’s influence and reputation will be very hard to undo.”

Risch was Tweeting on January 24, “Today I was briefed by leading global health experts about the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China. We learned that the risk of transmission within the U.S. is low at present. I will continue to work closely with U.S. officials to ensure Americans are protected.” But what has he actually done? 

Well, he’s embraced the White House blame China message, while totally ignoring the epicenter of the crisis – the White House. Even that begs the question of just what is Risch’s China strategy? Trump’s only approach, beyond unbroken fidelity to China’s dictatorial leader, involves tariffs that have crippled trade, while forcing U.S. taxpayers to bail out American farmers.

And what of the World Health Organization (WHO)? If the WHO needs reform, is the best strategy to eliminate U.S. funding in the middle of the pandemic? Again, the Idaho senator has no strategy and nothing to say. 

Meanwhile, under cover of COVID-19 confusion, Trump has fired the inspector general at the State Department, Steve Linick, an issue that had the Foreign Relations Committee a real chairman, would be front and center on the committee’s agenda. Risch has said nothing and will do nothing even in the face of published reports that the firing is linked to a number of questionable actions, including an investigation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to circumvent Congress and make a controversial $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. (I asked Risch’s office for a comment on the IG firing and received no response.) 

Trump’s cashiering of Linick marks the fourth such dismissal in three months and is an obvious effort to eliminate any visage of independent oversight of Trump and his administration’s conduct. The only Republican to immediately express concern about this blatant authoritarianism was Utah’s Mitt Romney who called Trump’s action “a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.” Risch, meanwhile, is silent. 

Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

It is telling that in his year and a half as Foreign Relations chairman, Pompeo has not once appeared before Risch’s committee to answer questions about China, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, deteriorating relations with NATO countries, or anything. With dereliction of his Senate duties – never more on display than the recent IG firing – Risch is abetting Trump’s efforts, as Aaron Blake wrote recently in the Washington Post, to “undermine independent oversight of his administration.” 

For good measure this week, Risch, acting as ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, voted to advance the nomination of Texas congressman John Ratcliffe to be director of national intelligence. Ratcliffe is a dedicated Trump toady widely described as the least qualified person ever nominated for such a position. Ratcliffe, with Risch’s help, will complete the politicization of the nation’s intelligence agencies.  

To be sure hypocrisy is part of this story, as well. Risch never tempered his criticism when a Democrat occupied the White House and his partisan disdain was regularly on display during the Obama Administration. “This is a foreign policy that is in shambles,” Risch said in 2012. “In the Middle East, it is a foreign policy of apology, it is a foreign policy of appeasement, it is a foreign policy of dithering and looking the other way. This cannot go on.” Yet, when it comes to Trump, Risch doesn’t critique, analyze or even discuss, he accepts – everything. 

Who benefits from Risch’s behavior and Trump’s foreign policy incoherence and incompetence? China, of course, (and Putin’s Russia) whose aim is to diminish American influence and weaken historic alliances, while discrediting democracy.

Michael Fullilove, a decidedly pro-American scholar who heads the Lowy Institute, Australia’s largest think tank, described it succinctly: “We increasingly feel caught between a reckless China and a feckless America that no longer seems to care about its allies.”

Meanwhile, Jim Risch is on track to be remembered as the worst chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the post-war period. He has certainly earned the distinction. 

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Additional reading:

Can these awful times make us better? 

I really admire the work of Rebecca Solnit who writes eloquently and profoundly about many things. In her recent piece for The Guardian she reflects on all the small, but incredibly important acts of kindness by ordinary people right now. She says: “I sometimes think that capitalism is a catastrophe constantly being mitigated and cleaned up by mutual aid and kinship networks, by the generosity of religious and secular organizations, by the toil of human-rights lawyers and climate groups, and by the kindness of strangers. Imagine if these forces, this spirit, weren’t just the cleanup crew, but were the ones setting the agenda.” 

What it’s like to be a Democrat in Montana?

With no official sanction, I like to think of myself as an honorary Montanan. I’ve never lived there, but I feel about the state like John Steinbeck who wrote in Travels with Charley: “I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” Yup. From the fishing to the political history to Glacier Park, I love the place. Now, read this from a real Montanan, Sarah Vowell, who gets the state pretty well. 

What it was like to have lunch with Noel Coward?

Dorothy Parker was a great wit and a great writer. Among her many quotable quotes: “That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.” Parker was also a charter member of the Algonquin Roundtable and they surely had a good time. 

The Algonquin Roundtable…

And finally, was Donald Trump a good baseball player? 

“I was supposed to be a pro baseball player,” Donald Trump wrote in 2004. “At the New York Military Academy, I was captain of the baseball team. I worked hard like everyone else, but I had good talent.” Er, well, turns out like so much else he says that isn’t really true. 

Thanks for reading…

Economy, Idaho Politics, Pandemic, Trump

The Next Wave

“The Republican states are in strong shape,” Donald Trump said last month. “I don’t know — is that luck or is that talent?” 

The president made that comment when he was asked if state governments need a financial transfusion in order to staunch the flow of budgetary red ink in the wake of the double whammy of a pandemic and a massive economic decline. Republicans in Washington seem dead set against help for the states, apparently in part because Trump and his congressional boot polishers – read Mitch McConnell – don’t want to help Democratic states. McConnell has also suddenly discovered that the nation’s debt has exploded while a Republican has been in the White House. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Here’s the reality. Every state – every state – is going to be staggered to its knees by the double whammy. While Idaho Governor Brad Little has received generally good marks for competently relying on sound public health advice to manage the COVID-19 impact, the governor will find that his is merely transitioning from one hourly crisis to another. 

“Right now, state governments are facing several types of fiscal challenges,” Boise State University political scientist Jaclyn Kettler told me this week. She studies state governments and how they manage budgets. Budget cuts, as Idaho has already announced, including at minimum a 5% reduction in education funding, are a given, but Kettler says the vast uncertainty about how deep the economic downturn will be complicates the state’s response. 

“This is a challenging time when many citizens need more services or support from their state and local governments,” Kettler said, “which will make decision-making potentially quite difficult for state leaders on what to cut.” But knowing Idaho’s legislature, cutting will the first and last option. Expect 5% reductions to be more like 15% by Labor Day. 

Idaho’s revenue pipeline has already been plugged. April revenue declined by $470 million, a 60% reduction in what state economists had predicted before the virus came calling. Some of that downturn may be attributed to delayed tax payments since the income tax filing deadline has been pushed back, but it’s a safe bet that revenue will be significantly off – perhaps wildly off – for months if not longer. 

The happy talk emanating from the White House about the economic recovery being V-shaped – a steep downturn followed by a sharp rebound – is delusional

“The second quarter hole is so deep that it’s going to take several quarters to get back,” Robert Dye, the chief economist at Comerica Bank, told CNBC, “and that’s going to have an impact on state and local government budgets because that has a direct correlation to tax receipts. The economy is not going to get back to that level for two years or three years, and tax receipts are going to be weak for quite some time.”

The fiscal orthodoxy that has long governed Idaho’s approach to state spending, namely that tax cuts are always the answer to every problem and reducing spending, even if it means that teachers and state employees get laid off, is going to collide with a grim truth. If Idaho’s response to the worst economy since the Great Depression is to cut and then cut some more the state’s eventual economic recovery will take longer and be even more painful. 

“Large state budget shortfalls could prolong a recession by prompting a cascade of layoffs that ripple across the economy, Emily Cochrane noted recently in the New York Times. She was quoting economists who have said that in April alone, “state and local governments laid off one million people, a number that could continue to climb without additional assistance.” 

Idaho’s higher education system continues to be a key to a strong, more sustainable state economy, but higher education is certain to again be on the legislative chopping block. College and university presidents are trying out furloughs and other cost reduction strategies, but as Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News noted recently the cuts currently anticipated may need to be “much deeper if enrollment plunges in the fall.”

Idaho’s Republican Governor Brad Little in transition from a public health crisis to a budget crisis

So far, Idaho’s Trumpish congressional delegation has been silent about any federal help for Brad Little’s next wave of crisis, a particularly stunning silence when you consider that every one of the state’s federal officials once served in a legislature that must by law balance the budget. These Republicans seem content to follow McConnell’s advice that Republicans “tap the breaks” on additional aid, even as the Senate majority leader’s notion of letting states go bankrupt crashed like a lead Zeppelin. 

McConnell has tried to score political debating points by saying he has no interest in bailing out public pension plans in blue states, but with his home of state of Kentucky facing huge budget shortfalls much like Idaho’s you have to wonder how long this GOP’s fiscal nihilism will remain politically viable. And in Idaho the issue isn’t propping up the state pension fund but simply preventing state government from taking the state economy farther into the ditch. 

So far Little, with minimal help from fellow Republicans and second guessed by lots of stupidity from his own lieutenant governor, has navigated the public health crisis with a sure hand. He’ll need a more united and more creative party to manage the next crisis, a party willing to think big and beyond the orthodox. 

“The scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent, significantly worse than any recession since World War II,” Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell said this week, as he bluntly called for more, not less government intervention to prop up the economy. 

For Powell, who has spent most of his career as a deficit hawk, the warnings are chilling. In the worst case, and case that appears all too likely, the country – and Idaho – faces what the Fed chairman called “an extended period of low productivity growth and stagnant incomes … Additional fiscal support could be costly but worth it if it helps avoid long-term economic damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery.” 

The soulful 19th century Stephen Foster tune – a ballad for our times just as it was prior to the Civil War – holds out hope that “hard times come again no more,” but the worst hard time is hardly behind us. In fact, it may just be beginning. 

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Additional Reading:

  • China’s Growing Ability to Challenge: Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reviews a new book Christian Brose, a former staffer to the Senate Armed Services Committee and a once top aide to the late Senator John McCain, who writes that China is now able to match – and even exceed – U.S. military capability. “The Pentagon wants to confront the Chinese challenge,” Ignatius writes, “but it insists on keeping the same vulnerable, wildly expensive platforms at the center of the United States’ military power. And Congress demands adherence to this status quo. When then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and then-Navy Secretary Richard Spencer tried to retire an aircraft carrier in 2019, Congress refused. Expensive fighter jets have a lobby, too. As Brose notes: ‘There is a reason why parts of the F-35 are built in every state in America. . . . It is political expediency.’”
  • Putin’s Goal: Now, to scare you completely – this from Franklin Foer in The Atlantic. “The Russians have learned much about American weaknesses, and how to exploit them… Even as to disinformation, the best-known and perhaps most overrated of their tactics, they have innovated, finding new ways to manipulate Americans and to poison the nation’s politics. Russia’s interference in 2016 might be remembered as the experimental prelude that foreshadowed the attack of 2020.” Oh, great…
  • Obamagate: Richard Wolff in The Guardian dissects what Donald Trump is doing by manufacturing a storyline about “Obamagate,” his latest conspiracy theory. “Trump has many good reasons to sail away to the land of smears. They’re called the polls, and they are – for the sociopath sitting in the White House – even worse reading than the pandemic death tolls or the latest unemployment claims. Trump is losing to Joe Biden by three points in Florida in the most recent Fox News poll, where he was supposed to have a lock on his re-election from his Mar-a-Lago mothership.”
  • Thanks for reading…be well.
2020 Election, GOP, Trump

Never Trump and the Fight for the GOP Soul…

In the wee hours of last Monday morning the president of the United States picked up his iPhone and rage tweeted four times at the conservative leaders of a new Never Trump group that calls itself “The Lincoln Project.” 

Trump was fuming about a powerful new ad – “Mourning in America” – a takeoff on one of the most famous and effective television spots in presidential history, Ronald Reagan’s 1984 ad “Morning in America.” Rather than Reagan’s claim that he brought to the country a new dawn, the Lincoln Project ad says Donald Trump has made the country “weaker, sicker and poorer.” 

“Americans are asking,” the devastating ad concludes, “if we have another four years like this will there even be an America?” 

Trump ranted that the ad and the group behind it were “a disgrace to Honest Abe” and he slashed at the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, calling George Conway, a prominent Never Trump conservative, “a deranged loser.”

For good measure Trump slipped in a slur – Moonface – directed at Conway, whose mother was of Filipino descent. Trump also slashed at long-time Republican operatives John Weaver and Rick Wilson, as “all LOSERS.” 

Weaver, a former John McCain guy and adviser to former Ohio governor John Kasich, seemed to revel in the attention Trump brought to the Never Trumpers.

The president’s rage might be understood as another example of his absolute insistence that every Republican bow before him and accept his incompetence and character shortcomings as the Idaho congressional delegation regularly does. But, on another level the incident and the vicious open break with a GOP president by a cadre of conservatives who have been unwilling to accept how Trump has remade – and deeply damaged – the Republican brand illustrates a real and lasting problem for the once Grand Old Party. 

An important new book – Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites – co-authored by Idaho native Robert P. Saldin, a professor of political science at the University of Montana, explores the conservative push back against Trump that dates back to the 2016 Republican primaries. The book, published by Oxford University Press, will be out soon and is based on extensive interviews with a range of conservatives who oppose Trump. Saldin’s co-author is Steven Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins. 

I asked Saldin this week if there were historical parallels to the push back against the president. The answer, of course, is yes, including modern intraparty objections to Barry Goldwater by Republicans in 1964 and Democratic opposition to George McGovern in 1972. But Never Trump still seems unprecedented. 

“In the context of these historical parallels,” Saldin told me, “the depth and breadth of the 2016 GOP opposition was remarkable. While objections on policy and ideological grounds were certainly important, it was—and is—Trump’s character that constitutes the central objection of Never Trumpers.” 

So how to explain a party where most elected officials claim to honor the legacy of Lincoln and celebrate the probity of Reagan, while embracing a characterless character like Donald Trump?

“Among the political pros, for instance,” Saldin told me, “what initially was a massive contingent of Never Trumpers declined rapidly once he became the apparent nominee. These professionals are uniquely beholden to staying in the party’s good graces. That’s how they pay their mortgage. And they don’t have the other kind of options that are available to other partisan networks. They don’t get to go back to the university or think tank jobs. So the ones who stuck it out as Never Trumpers tended to be the celebrity consultants who’d already made a ton of money, had side gigs, and had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. Obviously, there are always exceptions, and there certainly are in the Never Trump landscape. But the professional dynamics and constraints go a long way toward explaining the degree of flexibility people had.” 

This understanding goes some distance to help explain the situational ethics of Republicans like Idaho’s Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson, both of whom effectively disowned Trump in 2016 when he lewdly confessed on videotape to sexual abuse. But gradually and eventually totally they embraced Trump as the leader of a conservative movement that now rejects a vast array of the tenets that once represented core conservative values, from free trade to intellectual honesty, from American leadership of NATO to a rejection of activist judges. 

Crapo and Simpson and so many others accepted the character of a leader who many of the party’s political professionals knew would destroy the values that made them Republicans. They got flexible as the price of survival in a party they can hardly recognize any more. 

If Trump were to lose in November – a big if, but with his abandonment of leadership against the pandemic and with unemployment headed toward Great Depression levels, not a bad bet today – Saldin believes the Never Trump movement could become an important faction in a Republican Party that will struggle to define itself in a post-Trump world. 

“To be sure, it would be a minority faction,” he says. “But that faction could be pretty competitive in places the dominant faction isn’t competitive. Such a faction could find a following among the educated middle-class, business, and upwardly mobile segments of ethnic minority groups. It would likely embrace free trade, constitutionalism, pluralism, law and order, and be pro-market. There’d be stark differences with the Trump-style populists when it comes to issues like trade and immigration.” 

If such a thing were to happen it might well mark the resurrection of the GOP as a serious governing party, as opposed to a soap box for Trump’s personality cult and his grievances, and those of his angriest followers, over issues of race and hatred of “elites.” It might also be the salvation of American politics where a new center dominated by moderates willing to compromise on issues like climate change and rebuilding the middle class. It’s a big hope, but it might be all we have. 

“In bluer parts of the country where the Democrats’ Left wing is strongest—and where Trumpy populists are a non-starter—such Republicans could find a sweet spot,” Saldin argues. “In fact, we already see examples of something like this in the form of these popular Republican governors in Massachusetts (Charlie Baker) and Maryland (Larry Hogan).”

If the Never Trumpers have done nothing else, they remind us of something we should never forget about politics and political leaders: character matters. 

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Additional reading:

  • A long and detailed investigative piece in The Guardian recounts the story of Donald Trump’s involvement in the 1990s in modeling competitions involving teenage girls, including allegations that many of those behind the contests, including model agency heavyweight John Casablancas, a Trump pal, sexually preyed on the girls. “No such allegations have been leveled against Trump, who at the time was dating Marla Maples, the woman who in 1993 became his second wife. But his close involvement in the contest raises questions for the president. Did he know that Casablancas and others were sleeping with contestants? Why would a man in his 40s, whose main business was real-estate development, want to host a beauty contest for teenage girls?” Read the whole thing.
  • I have long admired Robin Wright’s reporting on foreign policy and other things. She writes in The New Yorker: “The pandemic has dangerously deepened divisions across America—a nation already riven in recent years by race, class, religion, and trash-talking politics. The concept of ‘one nation indivisible’ seems ever more elusive, even unattainable, in these anxious days of deadly pathogens, soaring joblessness, and food shortages.” Worth your time.
  • Great story from downtown Hamilton, Montana, the epicenter of the fight to find a cure for COVID-19. Great column by Charlie Warzel in the New York Times.
  • Finally, May 8 marks the 80th anniversary of VE Day in 1945 when World War II in Europe ended. Churchill buffs will recall that the great British prime minister, a definite Francophile, nevertheless had an often stressed relationship with the bigger than life Free French leader Charles De Gaulle. Newly released Cabinet documents from 1945 reveal at Winston feared “Le Grand Charles” might jump the gun on announcing the German surrender. He didn’t, but this story is a great look inside the history.
  • Thanks for reading. Stay safe.
2020 Election, Pandemic, Trump

The Worst Failure. Period.

The rank incompetence of Donald Trump’s response to the global pandemic will be studied for generations, analyzed and assessed as one of the great governmental failures in modern times

Trump’s mishandling of the public health crisis that led in turn to an economic crisis has few parallels but has been compared to George W. Bush’s inept initial reaction to Hurricane Katina in August 2005. Yet, as bad as that governmental failure was – and as damaging as it was to Bush’s presidency and legacy – and while 1,800 Americans died Bush eventually got a gruff, no nonsense Gulf War vet in charge and the situation slowly got straightened out. It was a catastrophe for sure, but pales compared to the current moment.

Trump is dwarfed by Lincoln in more ways than one

Katina, with all its governmental failure, led to reforms in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and highlighted an essential fact that has largely been ignored by Trump during the current crisis – one capable person must be in charge. 

Analogies have also been drawn to Soviet Russia in the spring of 1941 when Stalin’s generals were imploring him, and Britain was warning him, that Hitler was about to invade the Soviet Union. All the signs were visible in plain sight, but Stalin – very Trump like – refused to believe the warnings, believed they could be wished away. By December Hitler’s legions were in the Moscow suburbs and ultimately millions of Russians died in a brutal and bloody war that lasted four long years. Much of the devastation could have been avoided, as with our current disaster. 

The litany of governmental failure here is long and detailed and even if the president refuses responsibility the buck stops with the boaster-in-chief, including: the gutting of pandemic preparation efforts, the initial failure to recognize the danger of the spreading virus, the denial and minimizing of the threat, the ignoring of explicit warnings, the halting response, the failure to put one capable person in charge, the relentless effort to blame anyone else and the trust Trump placed not in experts, but his inexperienced son-in-law and talk show ideologues.

From the very first moment Trump treated the worst public health crisis since 1918 as a public relations problem that threatened his re-election prospects rather than threatening the health and well-being of millions of his constituents. 

Trump at Mar a Lago in early March when he was downplaying the pandemic. He dined with the Brazilian president who later contracted the virus

“They’re trying to scare everybody,” Trump said after a round of golf and a dinner party celebration at Mar A Lago. That was in February as he still refused to acknowledge or understand the pandemic that as of Monday had claimed nearly 70,000 American lives and crashed the economy. 

They – meaning the hated Democrats and Never Trumpers – wanted to “cancel the meetings, close the schools — you know, destroy the country,” Trump told his guests that weekend. “And that’s OK, as long as we can win the election.”

On Sunday, sitting in the shadow of Lincoln during a made for TV event, Trump complained that he – not hundreds of thousands of sick Americans – was the true victim of the pandemic. “They always said … nobody got treated worse than Lincoln,” Trump said while pointing toward the massive statue of our greatest president. “I believe I am treated worse. You know, I believe we’ve done more than any president in the history of our country in the first three years, three-and-a-half years. I really believe that.”

Yet, as bad as all this is, and it is very, very bad, and despite the wholesale effort underway – the largest propaganda effort in modern American history – to re-write the history of the last two months, this does not represent Trump’s greatest failure. The president, without character or basic decency, has failed on an even grander scale and it is this failure that stands to diminish the country for years and years to come. 

At a time when the vast majority of Americans long for moral leadership, inspiration in this hour of trial and someone able to articulate the shared decency that connects this wildly disconnected country, Trump offers – nothing.

Well, that’s not precisely correct. He offers all he has – division, discord, hatred, bigotry and a shocking lack of empathy, and then says “I don’t take responsibility at all” for his actions or unwillingness to lead a nation in crisis. Trump is a soulless, damaged man at the moment the nation needs a healer and a unifier

When former president George W. Bush, no stranger to controversy, recently offered words of hope, encouragement and a genuine sense that we really are all in this together, Trump demeaned Bush’s message. 

“In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants,” Bush said in a three-minute video message to the nation, “We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God.,” Bush said. “We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise.” 

Trump’s response to this eloquent plea for national unity: he called out Bush for failing to support him during his impeachment. The president’s mean tweet was prompted, of course, by the nitwits who populate that cable TV sh#*hole known as Fox News, but such pettiness came from the president of the United States. 

When armed protesters descended on the Michigan state capitol to object to state at home orders, Trump didn’t push back – he, after all, issued the national guidelines – but instead attacked Governor Gretchen Whitmer. He later called the protesters “very good people.” 

There are countless other examples of his constant motivation to drive a wedge, rather than heal a wound. Trump has the title, but has none of the morals, character or instinct to handle the job. 

In times of national trial, Americans naturally look to the president for compassion, honesty and a call to action. Bush provided as much in the wake of attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Ronald Reagan did it when the space shuttle exploded. John Kennedy called Americans to serve their country and when the Bay of Pigs fiasco landed squarely on his desk Kennedy did not dodge and deny but declared himself “the responsible officer of the government.” 

The buck doesn’t stop at Mar a Lago

In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt reminded a population frightened and demoralized by the Great Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and FDR went regularly to the radio to provide comfort and counsel to a hurting nation. He made us all Americans with a shared purpose. 

As the nation teetered toward our tragic and bloody Civil War in 1861, Abraham Lincoln invoked the immortal words that sought to summon both sides of the conflict to a better place, a shared place.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln said. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Perhaps the greatest example of crisis leadership, combining moral clarity, brutal honesty and hopeful inspiration was the work of Winston Churchill in the darkest days of 1940 when the United Kingdom stood alone against European fascism. 

Winston Churchill’s powerful, honest speeches and moral leadership in 1940 prepared British citizens for the great trials that were to come, but also offered hope amid the despair

“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government,” Churchill said upon becoming prime minister almost exactly 80 years ago. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. This is our policy. You ask, what is our aim?

“I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory, there is no survival.”

Imagine the current occupant of the White House summoning such honesty and moral clarity. Of course, you can’t. And it’s not because he needs better speech writers. He’s just not capable. We need a Churchill; we have a Trump. 

Please, God give Americans the strength to endure our ordeal of a most grievous kind. But we must recognize we will have to do it without a leader at the top. The president has failed at the central task of any president, and his unwillingness and inability to unite, encourage and rally the country is both an American tragedy and colossal challenge – to us. 

Will Americans emerge from our ordeal better, stronger, more united and more decent to, as Churchill said, “move forward to broad sunlit uplands” or will “sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age?” 

We have suffered a monumental, historic leadership failure. The president, and for the most part his political allies, are missing in action. 

Now it is up to individual Americans to pick up the pieces. Without a leader, it’s up to us – individuals, communities, businesses, non-profits, all of us. In none of our lifetimes have we faced a more serious responsibility.

Don’t kid yourself. The future of the country depends on our response. 

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Additional reading:

  • “No one ever stepped up to take responsibility for Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Jeffrey Miller and Sandra Scheuer, the four dead in Ohio,” Steve Duin writes in The Oregonian, remembering the 50th anniversary of the tragedy at Kent State. (By the way, Steve, a wonderful writer and storyteller, is always worth reading.)
  • “The story of Trump’s rise is often told as a hostile takeover. In truth, it is something closer to a joint venture, in which members of America’s élite accepted the terms of Trumpism as the price of power,” writes Evan Osnos in a great piece in The New Yorker.
  • I don’t know if former Republican-turned-Libertarian Justin Amash will be a spoiler in the presidential election, but it is possible. He could take votes from both Trump and Biden and he hails from a critical swing state – Michigan. Amash and his wild gamble profiled in this piece by Tim Alberta.
  • Writer Kristin Wong says it’s important to remain optimistic even in a time of great trial. “Optimism is simply being hopeful about the future, even when the present feels wholly negative.” Read the whole thing.
  • Thanks for reading. Stay safe.
Pandemic, U.S. Senate

Crapo’s Hot Seat…

Over the last six weeks Congress has appropriated $3 trillion to ease the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is by far the largest financial effort to prop up a faltering economy in American history. More spending is sure to come as the economic crisis worsens. 

With millions losing jobs, widespread numbers of businesses small and large in danger of complete collapse and growing worry about the ripple effects on state and local governments, the historian Jill Lepore says there is typically some historic precedent we can relate to for moments of such enormous upheaval. But in the current moment Lepore says “there is no precedent for this.” 

Who will get all that money? Will we even know who receives and who needs this kind of assistance? Will the watchdogs call out the abusers, and it’s inconceivable there will not be massive abuse? Who will provide accountability to an administration that has time and again proven its fundamental inability to handle the most basic tasks of running the government?

Already the relief effort has floundered in major potholes, with critical money to small business and many workers held up or disappeared. “The initial program,” as Bloomberg reported, “which launched April 3, was marred by delays and glitches after guidance on how to process loans wasn’t released until the night before, and many big banks weren’t ready to participate or held back until rules became clearer. Advocates complained that many small mom-and-pop shops were shut out as outrage built over larger, public companies and big chains getting funded” The follow up program was just as incompetently rolled out this week

At the same time, well-connected political operators like big Trump donor Monty Bennett, a hotel operator, had no trouble navigating a process that left many small businesses frozen out. Bennett scored over $96 million in Paycheck Protection “loans,” even as his companies reported revenue last year of $2.2 billion and while Bennett pulled in compensation of $5.6 million, including a $2.3 million bonus.

In March, as the website Popular Information revealed, as the pandemic spun out of control Bennett’s companies were flush enough to pay $10 million in dividends to certain shareholders, including Bennett’s father. 

Forbes reported that more than 70 publicly traded companies, including some outside of the U.S., received cash that it appears Congress intended to go to small businesses. Some like the deep pocketed owners of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team have returned relief money after taking a public relations beating, but many others continue to hold the cash. 

It is a massively complicated, hastily thrown together effort involving a half dozen federal agencies dispersing money, which after all – even if it is borrowed money or created out of thin air by the Federal Reserve – belongs to taxpayers. So who is watching over all this?  

The answer, at least in part, is Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and the man designated by the Senate majority as the point man to provide oversight of pandemic relief. It could be a career defining assignment for Crapo who is in his 22nd year in the Senate, operating mostly as a little noticed backbencher with an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and a polished ability to stockpile campaign cash from the financial services sector.

Senate Banking Committee chair Mike Crapo (left) talks with the committee’s ranking Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

While Crapo will manage the Senate oversight other panels will oversee additional aspects of the relief efforts. But the Idahoan has a big stage if he cares to use it. Crapo’s committee, for example, will apparently hold hearings next week on Brian Miller, appointed by Donald Trump as the special Treasury Department inspector general. Miller got the call after the president said he would not be bound by a legal requirement that the new IG report directly to Congress if he is “unreasonably” blocked in seeking information. 

Crapo has an opportunity to put a stamp of independence on oversight that is not only required by law, but necessary to see that these vast sums of money get where they are most needed. His initial response has been very Crapo-like, which is to say he has offered almost no signal as to how he will proceed. He might have said he will be a determined watchdog, exposing the truth and providing accountability wherever it leads, but he hasn’t. He might have insisted on the independence of the inspectors general. He won’t. He might have laid down a marker with the White House insisting that he will demand transparency. He hasn’t. 

“Required information and reports will be posted on the Banking Committee’s website,” Crapo staffer Amanda Crutchfield told me in an email this week. “Senator Crapo will be holding hearings and requesting information as required by law, and as needed,” she added.

Crutchfield said Crapo declined comment about Miller’s nomination and had nothing to say about Trump dismissing another IG who was apparently seen by the White House as too independent. When I asked if Crapo had any view on whether the inspector general was “accountable to the executive branch or to Congress,” I received no reply.  

An emergency like the one shaking the foundation of American society and the economy, “offers unparalleled opportunities for the coordinated looting of public coffers,” says Sarah Chayes, who has written extensively about how widespread corruption thrives when oversight and accountability lags or lapses under regimes that use turmoil to consolidate power and resist accountability. 

“In the scramble, tested procedures are ignored and structures are disorganized,” Chayes says, and “exhausted decision makers, pressured to ‘do something,’ miss crucial details, even as quantities of cash are injected into the chaos.”

There is a historical parallel that Crapo could reference regarding his new responsibilities should he choose, uncharacteristically for him, independence over fealty to the Trump White House. 

Senator Harry Truman (second from right) presides over what became known as “the Truman Committee,” while investigating corruption in the defense industry during World War II

Harry Truman, then a backbencher in the Senate, made his career by heading a committee that rooted out waste and profiteering in the defense industry during World War II. Senior military officials implored President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 to oppose the congressional oversight Truman envisioned, figuring it would be trouble. It was. Truman exposed vast corruption with military housing contracts, uncovered contractors who were paid despite shoddy performance and he exposed the much hyped corporate “dollar a year men,” who volunteered to help the war effort, as mostly being useless. 

Truman was a Democrat investigating a Democratic administration. He’s remembered today as a feisty fighter with a reputation for candor and independence. It’s a good model.

We’ll see soon enough how the senior senator from Idaho wants to be remembered. 

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Additional Readings:

  • If you read nothing else – read this. New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi (a great writer, by the way) went to a Donald Trump COVID-19 briefing at the White House and came away convinced that continued live TV coverage of the “5 o’clock follies” is essential. Many observers, of course, say the lie filled rants and wholesale misinformation is dangerous, but as she writes: “What a lot of Trump critics miss is that the biggest threat to his presidency isn’t the pandemic and the collapse of the global economy. It’s Trump. The more we see him — rambling, ranting, casually spitballing about bleach and sunlight — the clearer that becomes. But that’s not the media’s problem, and taking the spotlight off of him as he displays the full extent of his inadequacies would only serve to help him and to make the public less informed about what the federal government is doing — or not doing.” The whole piece is here and it’s very interesting.
  • George Packer had another must read piece in The Atlantic. He argues that the United States is experiencing its third major crisis of the 21st Century and each has exposed the fact that we live in a failed state. The first crisis was 9-11, the second the Great Recession and now a pandemic. Each crisis tore at the credibility of our political system and here we are: “Both parties were slow to grasp how much credibility they’d lost,” Packer writes. “The coming politics was populist. Its harbinger wasn’t Barack Obama but Sarah Palin, the absurdly unready vice-presidential candidate who scorned expertise and reveled in celebrity. She was Donald Trump’s John the Baptist.”
  • I originally missed Susan Glasser’s New Yorker article on Sarah Longwell, the NeverTrump conservative who is part of the Lincoln Project, a group working to defeat the president in November. It’s worth your time.
  • And finally, since there is more to life than politics and pandemics here’s a review of the latest from Hilary Mantel – The Mirror and the Light – the third in her amazing series on Thomas Cromwell and lots of others.

2020 Election, Voting Rights

Let ‘Em Vote…

Wisconsin, a state with a long progressive political tradition were state-level innovations were once the rule, recently held a vote-in-person primary election in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The election went ahead after the Republican dominated state legislature sued the Democratic governor who had wanted to delay the election and create time to allow more folks to vote by mail. 

The conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled for the Republicans, as subsequently did the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s rationale was tortured to say the least. Court’s ought not to interfere with state election laws, the majority said, notwithstanding the inconvenience of an unprecedented pandemic. Oh, yes, and notwithstanding the precedent the Court established in 2000 when five justices handed the presidency to George W. Bush by ordering that Florida state law be set aside and a recount stopped.

Voters line up in Wisconsin to cast ballots in the recent primary. (USA Today photo)

Failing to see the Republican action in Wisconsin and the Court’s ultimate decision to ignore reality as anything less than an effort at partisan vote manipulation is failing to see the forest for the trees.  

In Wisconsin there were numerous predictions that hundreds of thousands of people showing up in polling places would surely lead to more coronavirus cases and sure enough the Milwaukee health commissioner reported earlier this week that at least seven new cases of the virus are traceable to people exercising their franchise. 

All this is a sickly preview of what is likely to happen in November. Failure to adopt vote by mail policies nationally could profoundly impact the presidential and other elections this year. It’s really not too much to call it a crisis for democracy. It doesn’t have to be. 

In a couple of weeks my vote by mail ballot will arrive in my post office box in Oregon. I’ll mark the ballot in the privacy of my dining room table and mail it back or drop the ballot in a special collection box in town. The ballot will need to arrive or be dropped off by election day – May 19. Oregon has been exclusively a vote by mail state for 20 years and it works like a charm – clear, easy and clean. Oregon’s system enjoys bipartisan support, as well. 

Oregon has had an exclusive vote by mail system for 20 years

“Vote-by-mail is cheap and convenient,” Oregon’s Republican Secretary of State Bev Clarno said recently, “it’s given Oregon one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country, and we’ve proven that it’s very secure. In the wake of COVID-19, it also prevents voters from having to choose between staying safe at home and casting their ballot.”

According to records assembled by the conservative Heritage Foundation voter fraud in Oregon is hardly a problem since there is strict enforcement with fines for offenders. As the Eugene Register-Guard reported recently Oregon has had only 15 vote fraud cases since 2000, compared with Mississippi’s 29 cases since 2000 and Minnesota’s 130 cases since 2009. Those states are about the same size as Oregon and only allow in-person voting. In another analysis, The Brennan Center at New York University Law School has calculated the rate of Oregon voter fraud on 100 million ballots cast at .0012 percent. 

Voting by mail has other benefits, as well. I suspect we’ve all been in the position of standing in the voting booth looking at the candidates in an obscure special district election or down ballot race and thinking: “Who should I support for the board of the local mosquito abatement district or I don’t know anything about the candidates for state treasurer.” While sitting at the dining room table filling out your vote by mail ballot you can actually take a moment and educate yourself about such things. 

Vote by mail is also good for working families, seniors, people with disabilities who may have trouble getting to the polls and citizens who are non-native speakers of English. 

Additionally, and some campaigns really dislike this part, vote by mail helps minimize the impact of the last-minute campaign smear. When ballots start arriving two weeks before election day the spurious, two days before the election slimy charge that leaves no time for response isn’t nearly as effective. Campaigns are, at least slightly, less dirty as a result. 

Oregon is remarkably fast at counting ballots, too and results are often known within an hour or so of the polls closing. 

Oregon’s senior senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, is a national champion for voting by mail and has been joined by a host of Democrats in pushing for the idea. But time is running out to get a system in place by November, and of course Mitch McConnell is obstructing. 

Republicans generally don’t like vote by mail and President Trump has spun his usual fantasy arguments and conspiracy theories about the process. “Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters,” Trump said recently and incoherently. “They go collect them. They are fraudulent in many cases. They have to vote. They should have voter ID, by the way.” Trump, of course, has voted absentee since becoming a Florida resident, but never mind that. The man knows what he doesn’t know. 

Traditional, in person voting in November is clearly going to be difficult and the situation presents a threat to democracy

Trump went on to say the quiet part out loud, admitting his real concern with mail voting, as he said, is that “for whatever reason, [it] doesn’t work out well for Republicans.” 

Total fantasy. Utah, one of the most Republican states in the country, has gone almost entirely to vote by mail. Colorado, a swing state, has voted by mail since 2014. 

The canard that making it easier for people to vote would harm Republicans was clearly behind the recent Wisconsin debacle. Republican leaders there desperately wanted to help a conservative state supreme court judge win re-election and they cynically calculated that pandemic impacted in-person voting would hurt turnout and help the judge. Ironically, even while many Wisconsinites requested absentee ballots and hundreds of thousands voted in person, often wearing masks while standing in line at a drastically reduced number of polling places, the conservative judge lost in a landslide. Turns out that people like to vote. Little wonder some Republicans want to make it difficult. 

When historian Alexander Keyssar, who has written extensively on voting rights, testified before Congress in 2006 he said, “Our history makes plain that the right to vote can be as fragile as it is fundamental.” Protecting our right to vote – and making it easier by voting by mail – should represent a bipartisan commitment to democracy. That it doesn’t speaks directly to the fragility of the American experience. 

—-0—–

Additional reading:

  • The president and his allies are working overtime to rewrite the history of the last couple of months. That reality makes this remarkable piece from The Bulwark all the more important. The title sums it up nicely – Ten Weeks That Lost the War. You’ll want to keep this and share it with your kids and grandkids.
  • You have likely seen news coverage this week of “protests” in several states from Washington to Idaho to Michigan against state-level state at home orders. These events may seem to be stimulated from the grassroots, but they are not as the Washington Post has confirmed. And as this piece from a scholar who studies the radical right makes clear there is a vast amount of disinformation and conspiracy floating out there.
  • And there is this. One remarkable aspect of the current world situation is that a number of really wonder publications – the New York Review and the London Review of Books for example – have gone into the archives to find great stories to give us perspective. I’ll try to keep posting at least one a week here. This week a piece from September 1940 from The New Yorker. Read the whole thing.

Idaho Politics, Pandemic, Trump

Know Nothings…

My political education began in the 1970s in South Dakota. An uncle served in the legislature as a Republican and later a top aide to a GOP governor. I remember sitting in the gallery watching him on the floor of the state senate. I started to pay attention and politics and government became real when as a senior in college I had a marvelous opportunity to cover the state legislature for radio stations all over South Dakota. 

In those days South Dakota, a state with a long history of Republican dominance, was nevertheless competitive for Democrats, rather like Idaho in that same period. There was a healthy two-party system, the occasional Democrat in the governor’s office and Democrats could and did win national office. A guy name McGovern represented South Dakota for 18 years in the Senate. 

But for the last 15 years or so, certainly since Tom Daschle lost a Senate seat in 2004, South Dakota has been, like Idaho, as red as red can be. My old state hasn’t had a Democratic governor since 1978. Today the statehouse in Pierre (pronounced Peer, by the way) is the domain of a Sarah Palin-like Republican by the name of Kristi Noem. She may not be the worst governor in the country, but she is certainly in the running. 

South Dakota governor Kristi Noem has refused to issue a stay at home order, but she did go on Glenn Beck’s show this week to complain about a “fear culture” created by reporting about COVID-19

Noem has steadfastly refused to join 43 other governors and order a statewide stay at home order. Mayors in the state’s larger cities – a relative term in South Dakota – have taken their own faltering steps to control the COVID-19 pandemic, while front line health care workers have implored their conservative governor to take broader, more effective action beyond her proclamation of a statewide day of prayer. 

The governor’s most recent response was to announce that South Dakota would be a test case for the unproven hydroxychloroquine drug that the president has repeatedly cited, without a shred of scientific evidence, as a potential game changer. Noem said she had “an exciting day” after talking to Trump son-in-law and White House advisor Jared Kushner about the drug. 

At the same time news broke that the massive Smithfield Foods pork processing plant near Sioux Falls had shut down indefinitely after more than 50 workers tested positive for the coronavirus. The area is now one of the major virus hotspots in the country. 

Of course, Donald Trump and the know nothing base of the Republican Party, supplemented by a few neo-John Birchers like the gun toting crank Ammon Bundy and anti-government, but well-funded libertarians like the Idaho Freedom Foundation, is where to look to understand the origins of nonsense from Republicans like the South Dakota governor. 

As the one-time Republican and 2016 independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin said this week: “We’re now witnessing just how devastatingly destructive it can be when even one of our two major parties turns its back on truth and expertise in favor of blind loyalty to one man,” which brings us to Idaho. 

I began wondering last week why Governor Brad Little was receiving so little support from fellow Republicans as he has struggled to respond to the pandemic. No senior Republican had taken to the airwaves or social media to lend him support or push back against the party’s primitive wing exemplified by Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin and Rep. Heather Scott who have actively resisted the governor’s leadership. 

Scott actually called the governor, a fellow Republican, a “little Hitler” and equated his stay at home order to the Holocaust. Such idiocy literally seeps out of the seams of these Republican know nothings.

Little’s actions, including a statewide stay at home order, too slowly implemented and lacking sufficient statewide coordination, have nonetheless certainly saved lives and slowed, but far from stopped the spread of the virus. Little’s decision this week to extend his order for another two weeks was prudent and almost certainly lifesaving. 

The answer to why he’s received so little support from fellow Republicans came earlier this week. Those leaders clearly stated their priority and it was not to follow the science and the common sense of how this pandemic is eventually brought to heel. 

“Somewhere between a blanket stay-at-home order and a complete disregard for the reality of this virus’s potential, there lies an acceptable level of risk,” House Speaker Scott Bedke wrote last weekend to the governor. “A statewide, one-size-fits-all approach,” Bedke blithely said, “is ill-advised.”

The Republican Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, Scott Bedke, has pressed his fellow Republican to ignore the science and effectively put lives at risk to benefit the economy.

Boise State public radio reporter James Dawson broke the story of Bedke’s letter, a stunning example of the kind of anti-science, anti-expertise thinking that dominates the party from bottom to top. 

Meanwhile, that reliable reactionary Raul Labrador, Little’s primary opponent in 2018 and now the GOP party chairman, weighed in with the very Trumpian “The cure cannot be worse than the disease!” Labrador’s statement – perhaps his first blast at a repeat run against Little – was headlined: Reopen Idaho. 

What Bedke, Labrador and the many they speak for in their party were really saying is damn the public health, what’s a few more deaths, many more sick people and an almost certain second wave of disease when the Idaho economy is at stake? 

Bedke and Labrador don’t say, of course, how many more deaths might be acceptable, but perhaps they should have consulted with the family of the woman in her 60s who died this week at a Boise nursing home where 14 care givers are believed to have the disease. Or maybe they could have spoken with doctors in Lewiston or Blaine County who continue to be frustrated by a lack of sufficient testing, which remains the key to slowly resuming a more normal life. The harsh reality remains that there will be nothing approaching “normal” until the disease is truly at bay and that is going to take time, perhaps a long time. 

But instead of the very real life and death implications of the need for more physical distancing, while more testing and contract tracing of those who have been exposed is put in place, Bedke threatened Little with retribution during the next legislative session for the governor’s handling of “legislative powers.” 

There once was a time when willful Republican ignorance about science and wholesale disregard for facts were abstract matters of theoretical concern. Now they have become minute-by-minute threats to life and health. 

As this is written U.S. deaths from the virus are headed for 30,000 and higher, the largest number in the world, and we should remember the immortal words of House Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma, the Hammett Republican who bizarrely sits on the board of her local health district. “This is not the plague. Stop treating it like it is,” Blanksma said a month ago. “Wash your hands and act like responsible humans.”

The key words there are “responsible humans,” a concept beyond many in today’s Republican Party.  

—–0—–

Further reading:

  • Marie Helweg-Larsen is a Professor of Psychology at Dickinson College. She had a very interesting piece the other day about “optimism bias,” the notion that only bad things happen to others. She writes: “But in the case of a pandemic like the coronavirus, if you don’t think something bad is going to happen to you, you might not bother changing your behaviors. That’s exactly what a U.S. study on the coronavirus found.”
  • Montana Press Monthly is a great publication in the Big Sky state. I wrote a piece for the most recent issue called “The Montana Roots of The Plot Against America,” the current HBO series based on the Philip Roth novel. I think the real story is just as wild as Roth’s popular “historical” fiction. (Note: you’ll be able to see the entire contents of the Monthly and its worth the look, including great photos illustrating my article and a piece about the 1918 influenza pandemic in Montana.
  • Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a great example of really good, in-depth political reporting. It’s not a spoiler to observe that Mayer’s reporting confirms that McConnell is, as another political observer has noted, “the gravedigger of American democracy.”
  • After you read the McConnell piece. Do yourself a favor and read this – “The Tiger Kings of Basketball: Three stories about the NBA, billionaires, and the pandemic.” And, yes, the two stories are connected.
  • And…I don’t know about you but I’ve tried at least once a day during these crazy days to reach out to an old friend or acquaintance that I haven’t talked with for too long. In keeping with that idea Daphne Merkin has a lovely piece in the New York Review about using the phone to stay connected. What an old fashioned idea. She writes: “To think of Bell Telephone’s long-ago slogan ‘Reach out and touch someone you love’ is to be reminded anew of the primacy the phone once enjoyed.”
  • Stay in touch…

Idaho Politics, Pandemic, Trump

Too Big For One Man…

“A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire,” then-President George W. Bush said in 2005. “If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.”

The forest fire analogy is something Idahoans should understand in the midst of a global pandemic. You act quickly, decisively in a coordinated fashion and you can often prevent a conflagration. By contrast the slow, stumbling, inconsistent, often fact-free response of the Trump Administration to the coronavirus will go down in history as a governmental and leadership failure on a vast scale. The damage in death and economic destruction will take months – perhaps years – to assess, but this much is clear from the vast public record: the COVID-19 pandemic has been more poorly handled in the United States than in any other developed country.

At least America is first at something. 

The Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic has been slow, uncoordinated and chaotic – CNBC photo

But, it’s not enough to put this failure exclusively at the door of the Oval Office, as appropriate as that seems. The governmental failure is broader and more systemic and elected officials, Idaho’s Senator James Risch for instance, should reckon with their own grossly inadequate leadership at a time of national and international crisis. 

Reviewing what is already on the public record is damning and in a just political world Risch should pay a steep price at the ballot box. That the junior senator rarely attempts to explain his actions – or lack thereof – and merely drafts in the wake of a failed president is a testament to how broken American and Idaho politics have become.

Here’s the record. 

On January 24, Risch issued his first statement about “a new strain of coronavirus” that had been detected in China. He said he had, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, “convened a briefing from the U.S. government’s leading global health experts tracking this novel coronavirus, now identified as 2019-nCoV.” 

We knew a lot about the virus, Risch assured us, and public health officials effectively had things well in hand. 

“The CDC has testing capabilities,” Risch said, and “is actively working to develop an effective vaccine, and screening has been introduced at five U.S. airports. While that screening will not be 100% effective in capturing every traveler who may be infected – especially if they are not sick upon arrival – we know that public awareness and diligence is key to infection control.” 

Very little of that statement has stood the test of time, let alone the test of two months.

Testing on a scale widespread enough to be really effective in halting the spread of the disease remains woefully inadequate. The Idaho Statesman reported on April 2 that the limited coronavirus tests that were being conducted in Idaho were still being sent out of state to regional labs, “leading to delays of 10 or more days.” The newspaper said there were reports “of people waiting more than 14 days for test results. The delay in testing is happening even to health care workers, which could lead to the spread of the disease even faster.” 

The vaccine Risch mentioned is likely more than a year away and screening at airports, as Science magazine has shown, “will likely do very little to slow the spread of the virus as it’s exceedingly rare for screeners to intercept infected travelers.” Even more to the point hundreds of thousands of travelers entered the country from China after the existence of the virus was widely known and screening was completely inadequate. “I was surprised at how lax the whole process was,” one traveler from Beijing who arrived on March 10 told the New York Times.

In a January 24 Twitter message about his private briefing Risch parroted Donald Trump who, it must be remembered, said back when he should have know better that it would just “go away.” “We learned that the risk of transmission within the U.S. is low at present,” Risch said. “I will continue to work closely with U.S. officials to ensure Americans are protected.”

Right. 

Actually, after that January statement Risch went quiet about the coronavirus even while alarms were raised inside the White House and while others with a less visible soapbox took action. 

On February 5, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a member of Risch’s Foreign Relations Committee, sounded genuine concern. Murphy said he had “just left the Administration briefing on Coronavirus. Bottom line: they aren’t taking this seriously enough. Notably, no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake. Local health systems need supplies, training, screening staff etc. And they need it now.” 

By contrast Risch made no public comment, but rather Tweeted on the same day Murphy was expressing concern about the administration’s lackluster response that, “Today, I will vote to acquit President Trump.”

That statement came a day after the senator praised Trump’s State of the Union speech as “an instant classic.” That wasn’t true, either. 

Since the beginning of the Trump Administration, Risch – who also sits on the Intelligence Committee, which we know from public records received coronavirus briefings from the CIA and others in January – has boasted of his access to the White House and his close working relationship with the president, but it appears he did nothing to sound the alarm about a deadly pandemic. 

Risch might have used his committee positions, particularly Foreign Relations, to publicly press for more information about how China – and Russia, too – was manipulating information about the virus, but he didn’t.

Risch did issue a statement with several other Republicans on March 18 demanding that China “work with, not against, the international community and international organizations to ensure we all have accurate information needed to better constrain this global threat.” But he dropped it. 

It’s worth noting that on January 24, when Risch made his initial statement about the virus, Trump was praising China lavishly. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency,” Trump said. “It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

It’s impossible to believe that Risch, privy to intelligence reports and briefings, didn’t know that Trump’s statement was fabulist nonsense. But he said nothing before his eventual pivot to redirect criticism from Trump to China. The Risch public pivot, by the way, came only two days after Trump’s own pivot – that was March 16 – when he begin to refer to the “China virus.”

New York University journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen said recently that, “the battle to keep Americans from understanding what went on January to April is going to be one of the biggest propaganda and freedom of information fights in modern US history. Precisely because so much of it is public, confusion must be made massive.” 

That statement goes a long way toward describing Trump’s “light at the end of the tunnel” afternoon “briefings” on the crisis, sessions that typically amount to little more than a platform for the president to attack reporters, peddle disinformation and praise his own performance. 

Risch, too, is lending a hand with the spread of this propaganda. Refusing to question anything about Trump’s awful and deadly response, Risch suggested recently to Chuck Malloy, a friendly columnist for Idaho Politics Weekly, that complaints from Republican and Democratic governors, from public health officials and frontline health care workers were really nothing more than politics. 

“He’s going to be criticized by people who don’t like him or hate him,” Risch said of the president, “and complimented by people who think he’s doing a pretty decent job.” In other words, no introspection from the one guy in Idaho who had a front run seat to see all this play out from the beginning. No desire to hold anyone accountable, even after Trump used the cover of the pandemic to fire the inspector general of the intelligence agencies and then remove the IG designated to oversee how pandemic relief funds are spent. 

“It’s all useless,” Risch told Malloy of the criticism. “What’s going on is bigger than one man.” Well, he’s right about that. The challenge to honestly, effectively lead at such a time is way too big for Donald Trump. And clearly vastly beyond the senator’s capabilities, as well.

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Additional reading:

  • Fintan O’Toole, an Irishman and columnist for the Irish Times, writes as well about American politics as almost anyone. His piece in The New York Review of Books is entitled, appropriately enough, “Vector in Chief.
  • The Lawfare Blog at the Brookings Institution is an absolute go-to site for news and analysis on everything from the Supreme Court to COVID-19. The editor of the site, Benjamin Wittes, has an important piece on Trump’s firing of two inspector generals. Wittes says Trump has used the firings to distract from his own handling of the pandemic, but adds, “There’s another reason the serial dismissal of independent inspectors general causes only a ripple, not a political wave. And that is that we’ve gotten so used to this sort of thing that we don’t see it as all that scandalous any more. We see it just as Trump being Trump.” Just a reminder: this is not normal – or right.
  • Donald Trump has attacked the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, because she’s been critical of the national response to the pandemic. Michigan is now a critical state where the disease and death is on the rise. Meanwhile, Whitmer is being mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate for Joe Biden. Tim Alberta of Politico has a must-read profile of the governor.
  • And…the missing baseball season got sadder this week with the death of Detroit Tigers’ great Al Kaline. Number 6 played his entire career – 22 seasons – in the Motor City, but had he showcased his talents in New York or LA Kaline would be even more heralded as one of the games great talents. I have always been a fan. He was great.
2020 Election, Pandemic, Trump, Uncategorized

Unrelenting Logic…

There is an unrelenting mathematical logic to the spread and impact of the COVID-19 virus. Denial of the logic is like playing Russian Roulette, the odds are unpredictable and choosing incorrectly is deadly. 

January 22, 2020Donald Trump: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

As brutal as the math will become – a couple hundred thousand cases become a million cases, a few thousand deaths become 100,000 deaths – the logic cannot be denied, unless you reside in a partisan political fantasy land. 

February 25, 2020Rush Limbaugh: “It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” 

And it’s not like we haven’t been through something like this before – it happened in 1918 – it’s just that we don’t remember the history, or we chose to ignore evidence in plain sight. The logic remains. 

The Idaho Statesman, October 15, 1918

October 10, 1918 – The Wallace Miner: “We are confronted by an epidemic of influenza which will affect more than half of our population in probability. There is a shortage of physicians, nurses and hospital accommodations.” 

March 20, 2020 – The New York Times: “Even in the best case situation, with a shortage of skilled doctors and nurses, caring for Covid-19 patients with life-threatening respiratory distress will be like using a Band-Aid to stop a carotid artery bleed,” Pauline M. Chen, MD

News briefs from the Kendrick, Idaho Gazette, October 1918

October 11, 1918 – The Kendrick Gazette: “The quarantine has been placed in Idaho. All public gatherings, excepting schools, both public and private, are forbidden by an order issued Wednesday by the state board of health.”

October 15, 1918 – The Blackfoot, Idaho Republican: “In its fight to stop the spread of Spanish influenza, the public health service is investigating the causes of the disease, the conditions which promote its spread and the part played by carriers in epidemics of the malady.”

March 20, 2020 – The Hill: “The intelligence community was warning of the danger posed by the novel coronavirus throughout January and February as the White House downplayed the threat and was slow to roll out nationwide measures, reports show.”

October 17, 1918 – Twin Falls Weekly News: “To her credit be it said, Twin Falls has not hesitated to comply fully with the terms of the latest closing order to emanate from Boise…if it is necessary to close up every industry and every institution in the city in order to prevent an outbreak of Spanish influenza, Twin Falls will cheerfully do just that.” 

October 21, 1918 – The Spokesman-Review: “Three more deaths have occurred (in Nez Perce, Idaho) from influenza…(including) Carl Price, proprietor of the local garage…he leaves his widow and four small children.” 

October 22, 1918 – The American Falls Press: “Dr. Noth, who has been confined to his home for the past several days with influenza, suffered a relapse yesterday. Miss Virginia Nunnelly, who had been visiting in Salt Lake City for several weeks, has been summoned to help care for him.” 

October 23, 1918 – Spokane Chronicle: “Four deaths yesterday and three last night from pneumonia, following Spanish influenza, have resulted in closing the state college in all departments.” 

March 29, 2020 – Politico: “Liberty University, meanwhile, has invited its students to return to the dorms, whatever their circumstances might be. [Jerry] Falwell has said this decision was in students’ best interests—that students would be better off if they returned to campus before the coronavirus spread—but that suggestion has met with exasperation by public health experts, state and local officials, and many residents of Lynchburg.”

October 25, 1918 – Rathdrum Tribune: “The alarming spread of influenza throughout Idaho, caused the state board of health to order all public and private schools in the state to close indefinitely.” 

November 5, 1918 – Blackfoot, Idaho Republican: “The Bradford family is still seriously ill with influenza…Mr. and Mrs. Lyman Tanner are the proud parents of a baby son, born Monday morning. Both the parents are ill with influenza…Miss Hazel Quigley has been dangerously ill with the influenza, but is slightly improved at the present.” 

November 15, 1918 – Burley, Idaho Herald-Bulletin: “[With] the death of Ralph Jamison Gochnour from influenza Sunday night the University of Idaho lost one of its most prominent students…Mr. Gochnour was a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity. He was a young man of pleasing personality, a student of keen and inquiring mind.” 

Item from the Blackfoot, Idaho Republican, October 1918

November 22, 1918 – Kendrick Gazette: “There will be no church services in Kendrick Sunday. Both churches agreed to postpone church meetings for at least another week.” 

March 30, 2020 – Associated Press: “A northern Idaho lawmaker led a church service on Sunday despite a statewide stay-at-home order by Gov. Brad Little to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Republican Rep. Tim Remington, the pastor of The Altar Church in Coeur d’Alene, held the service, but it’s not clear how many attended…On Sunday, he told worshipers that the stay-at-home order violated their rights.” 

December 19, 1918 – Grangeville Globe: “Undertaker A.J. Maugg returned last Friday evening from Riggins where he was called the day before to direct the funeral of Mrs. Cleveland Hollenbeak of that placed who had passed away Thursday from influenza. Mrs. Hollenbeak was 28 years old and is survived by her husband and two small children.” 

December 27, 1918 – Salmon, Idaho Recorder: “The epidemic appeared last week in the stoutly quarantined community of Challis, where it is said more than a score of cases in pronounced form were reported. It was said the disease was conveyed to the town by an enterprising traveler who forded the river in order to get by the quarantine guards.” 

John Barry, author of the definitive study of the 1918 influenza pandemic: “Of all the lessons from 1918, the clearest is that truth matters…You don’t manage the truth. You tell the truth. . . Those in authority must retain the public trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.” 

March 27, 2020Charlie Sykes, conservative columnist: “[This crisis has] its own peculiar awfulness: the overlay of bad faith, cynical spin, and serial deception. Who do we believe? What do we believe? Who is telling us the truth and who is shoveling fabulist bullshit? 

“But what did we expect? We had taken a long vacation from truth because we could afford to, right?” 

“You can call it a germ, you can call it a flu, you can call it a virus, you know you can call it many different names. I’m not sure anybody even knows what it is,” Donald Trump

March 30, 2020 – The New Yorker: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. Trump said repeatedly that he wanted the country to reopen by Easter, April 12th, contradicting the advice of most health officials. (On Sunday, he backed down and extended federal social-distancing guidelines for at least another month.)”

March 31, 2020Donald Trump: “This is going to be a very painful, very, very painful two weeks. When you look and see at night the kind of death that’s been caused by this invisible enemy, it’s incredible.”

March 6, 1919 – Salmon Recorder: “With but 18 new cases of influenza reported yesterday to the city health office the crest of the third revival of the epidemic is believed to have passed.” 

The logic is unrelenting. 

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Additional reading:

  • In lieu of Opening Day, a wonderful essay on baseball by Adam Garfinkle.
  • NeverTrump conservative William Kristol – I’ll remind you he was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle – on how Trump has broken the Republican Party and conservatism for good. Kristol says: “We have now reached the terminus of craven loyalty and pathetic apologetics. I don’t see how either the political institution of the Republican party or the intellectual movement of conservatism recovers from what we have seen over the last three years—but especially the last three months.”
  • I won’t be reading Woody Allen’s new book, but you should read this review by Dwight Garner in the Times. Here’s a preview: “Volunteering to review [the book], in our moral climate, is akin to volunteering for the 2021 Olympic javelin-catching team. I told my wife and daughter my plan, and they stared at me as if I’d announced my intention to find the nearest functioning salad bar and lick the sneeze guard.”
  • And finally, video conference is bigger than ever in the age of physical separation. Here’s a thoughtful piece on how to make the most of it and also understand the limitations. And remember: failure to mute is the new “reply all.”
  • Stay safe.