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…

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.
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.

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. 

—–0—–


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.
2020 Election, GOP, Pandemic, Trump

War on Government…

As a world-wide pandemic silently sulks its way across the globe pulling the international economy into recession or worse, it has become increasingly clear that Americans are facing a political, societal and economic crisis unlike anything most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. 

It looks kind of interesting. It’s not

And for better or worse, it’s going to be up to individuals, a few insightful business leaders and a relative handful of courageous political leaders to chart the course forward. Our politics is broken, perhaps fatally. Half of the political leadership class is captive to willful misinformation, conspiracy theories, disdain for science and expertise of every kind and devoted to the kind of government that shutdown the White House office responsible for coordinating the response to what we now call COVID-19.

The Republican Party has been fighting a “war on government” since Ronald Reagan infamously labeled government the cause of our problems, not the answer. Whether he intended to or not, and Reagan was less ideological than almost anyone in the GOP today, at his 1981 inaugural the heir of Barry Goldwater heralded the establishment of a new Republican philosophy that continues. There are essentially two Republican policies: tax cuts for the wealthy and unlimited spending on the military. Everything else, perfectly highlighted by Donald Trump’s incomprehensible inability to anticipate and counter a killer pandemic, is expendable, or unnecessary. 

When in 2018 our blustering incompetent president shuttered the National Security Council office devoted to preparing for the next pandemic there was nary a ripple of concern. Trump has been lying this week, as every week, saying he had nothing to do with the decision, but videotape has now surfaced where he brags about this epic leadership failure. 

“Some of the people we’ve cut they haven’t been used for many, many years and if we ever need them we can get them very quickly and rather than spending the money,” Trump said at the time. How has that been working out? 

Some times a picture really is worth a thousand words

Some astute observers of American politics can remember all the way back to the early days of the Trump regime when Steve Bannon, Trump’s government hating senior strategist, boasted that his job was the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” meaning, as Fortune magazine pointed out, “weakening regulatory agencies and other bureaucratic entities.” Bannon’s bombast and stupidity doesn’t look so good these days. 

Indeed, as Beth Cameron, a leader in the White House pandemic office that is no more, wrote recently “it is clear that eliminating the office has contributed to the federal government’s sluggish domestic response. What’s especially concerning about the absence of this office today is that it was originally set up because a previous epidemic made the need for it quite clear.”

Put another way, Barack Obama created the office in 2014 to combat Ebola and did so effectively, so Trump did away with it four years later because he could. 

This utter disdain for expertise and common sense has become the defining feature of the Republican Party and you can see it from Washington, DC to Boise. Congressman Russ Fulcher defaulted to the GOP playbook that tax cuts will cure a pandemic when he was one of 40 House Republicans who voted against emergency legislation to address sick leave for the millions of Americans who are without it, a move considered by health experts as a key strategy to contain the spread of the virus. 

“First of all, government shouldn’t be mandating to businesses how they pay their employees, in my view,” Fulcher said in explaining his inexplicable vote. “And secondly, that’s going to put some small businesses out of business.” 

Fulcher advocated tax incentives, not “hard mandates” from the government. The rookie congressman will soon enough discover that “hard mandates” are precisely what is required along with massive government spending that preserves jobs and enhances the ability of health care providers to meet the crisis. 

Fulcher is the perfect embodiment of a head in the sand political Neanderthal, a dim partisan functionary tethered to right wing ideology rather than real world realities. The same can be said of the Republican dominated Idaho Legislature that is stumbling to adjournment worried not about strategies to protect the sick and those who will be, but devoting its closing hours to passing legislation to prevent transgender females from participating in athletics, making sure Idaho can outlaw abortion when the Supreme Court makes that possible and twice defeating an already inadequate higher education budget.

Legislators debated how many ideologues fit on the head of a pin. Local school boards and mayors got to work.  

As the Washington Post noted earlier this week: “For weeks, many on the right, including Trump, minimized the virus, if they considered it at all. Even in recent days, as much of the world shuts down to try to stop its spread, some Republicans mocked what they saw as a media-generated frenzy.

“Their reaction reflected how the American right has evolved under Trump, moving from a bloc of small-government advocates to a grievance coalition highly skeptical of government, science, the news and federal warnings.”

It is so transparently telling that Trump’s Oval Office speech last week where he made his first faltering effort to get in front of the danger the pandemic represents to all Americans was written by two incompetent ideologues – Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller – guys with no experience whatsoever in the subject at hand. Trump and his speechwriters were practicing public relations, and badly to boot, not engaging in crisis management or presidential leadership. 

Kushner, Miller and Bannon: the Three Stooges of the modern Republican PartyLA Times photo

There are so many mileposts over the last three years that might have flattened his unique curve of presidential malfeasance – the GOP dismissal of Russian election interference and the investigation that exposed it, Trump’s gross mismanagement of foreign policy and ignorant, heartless approach to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, the kids in cages on the southern border, the hate filled tweets and ugly insults, the Senate Republican willingness to ignore the president’s clear efforts at Ukrainian blackmail – but all now fade into our collective rearview mirror. 

We are left staring straight ahead at what will likely prove to be the worst American crisis since World War II, coupled with the worst economy since the Great Depression all presided over by a man no serious Republican would hire to manage a car wash. 

Trump and Republicans didn’t create the pandemic and the economic meltdown. They merely furthered a notion of government and political irresponsibility that made such a nightmare possible and they labeled it all “American exceptionalism.” But, of course, the only thing exceptional is the ignorance and selfishness. As the writer Howard Bryant says, “We replace destruction with exceptionalism: it could never happen here.” Yet, it has. 

There are tough days ahead. We’re in unchartered seas. Personal and mostly non-governmental institutional initiative coupled with charity, decency and honesty will be essential. When we emerge on the other side America will be a different place. 

We’ll be either a stronger, better, more decent people without Trump and a lot of his enabling Republicans, or we won’t. America will begin to get well, or our sickness will deepen. No one will save us but us. 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

  • I found this piece by Adam Garfinkle in The American Interest fascinating and I hasten to add I don’t agree with everything he says, yet he carefully and persuasively makes the case that the handling of the Trump impeachment was an American disaster. Read the whole thing.
  • American and world airlines are in a deep dive. (And I complained to Alaska Airlines this week about the carriers flight change policy in this time of turmoil, so I am hardly an uninvolved bystander.) And we should all brace ourselves for the big – BIG – cost of propping the air carriers up. Here’s why it matters and why the government should extract some concessions.
  • There are a number of viral – pardon me – videos making the rounds recounting the president’s earlier discounting of the cornoavirus. This one about Fox News is, well, stunning.
  • And…a serious and seriously funny guy, Dave Pell, has re-written a few lines of famous poetry for the Age of the Virus.
  • Thanks for reading…and sharing. Wash your hands.
2020 Election, Pandemic, Trump

Trump Face Palm…

The greatest vulnerability for most politicians is not the unwise vote they cast a dozen years ago, or the youthful but still stupid favorable comment made about a bearded Latin American dictator. No, the real vulnerability comes when an elected official’s political position intersects with a requirement for competence.

Gaffes can be managed; being awful at your job in public can be fatal. Think about some of the great political leaders of the not too distant past, and then if you dare, think about leadership today. 

Franklin Roosevelt was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and earned an Ivy League law degree, but still had few demonstrable skills beyond a sunny personality when he won the presidency. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said FDR possessed “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” And the great political analyst of his day, Walter Lippmann, dismissed Roosevelt as a “pleasant man who without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.” 

FDR, a born leader at his best in crisis

But Roosevelt was a born leader – decisive, informed, careful, yet willing to take a calculated risk. He surrounded himself with serious, smart, intelligent people who he empowered and for the most part listened to. Roosevelt’s leadership during World War II is reason enough to rank him among our greatest presidents. 

For sure FDR made mistakes with personnel, but he was smart enough to put General George Marshall in charge of the war effort and dispatch his most trusted aide, Harry Hopkins, to deal directly with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin. Roosevelt was not a manager or meddler, but a grand strategist and his principle skill was as a communicator. 

Churchill, most historians agree, was a meddler, but also a brilliant synthesizer, a leader constantly prodding and pushing his subordinates to do more and do it better. And Churchill accepted advice. As his most recent great biographer Andrew Roberts recounts, not once during the entirety of World War II did Churchill go against the unanimous advice of his top military advisers, a remarkable fact given that Churchill trained as a soldier and fought battles on three continents by the time he became prime minister. 

Churchill, a great leader in a crisis, with General Dwight Eisenhower

No one in their right mind would suggest that the two great wartime leaders were anything but competent at their jobs. Tragically, and one hopes not fatally, we can’t say the same

Three events – at least three that we know of – converged in short order to highlight the abject incompetence of the current American commander-in-chief. Dealing with a raging pandemic, a fragile economy shaken by the COVID-19 virus and the 20-year military quagmire in Afghanistan has laid bare Donald Trump’s true skill, which is to say he has no true skill useful to the current perilous moment. 

The Republican politicians – think the Idaho delegation – who have belted their own reputations to the incompetence of a guy none of them would trust to manage a Dairy Queen (and I mean no respect to soft serve ice cream) deserve everything they will endure in the weeks and months to come. They have wrapped themselves in ineptitude hoping that partisanship would mask their own and the president’s failures.

Since most politicians default to thinking that their position will always prevail, they’ve been hoping – praying more likely – that what has happened over the last few days would somehow not be visited on Trump and his cabinet of bozos. Now it has and they own it. 

Oklahoma Republican Congressman Tom Cole, hardly a Trump basher, nevertheless put a fine point on Trump’s ineptitude this week when he chastised the administration for its persistent and cavalier dismissal of the threat of a serious health emergency. 

Cole was warning back in 2017 that Trump Administration inattention to budgets and personnel at the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health would likely bite Trump where he sits. That prediction has now clearly come to pass. During a hearing this week Cole said the coronavirus outbreak and the abject failure of the administration to aggressively meet the crisis was a “sort of vindication of the bipartisan judgment over the last several years that this was really an area we needed to make investments.”

The Trump Administration has proposed steep cuts to these agencies in each of its four budgets, leaving Congress to devise, largely without the help of the agency experts its own funding and staffing priorities. 

Trump actually said when it still must have seemed to him that he could employ ignorance to bluff his way through a pandemic that “some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years. And if we have a need, we can get them very quickly.” Right. 

Stock futures began to fall Wednesday even as Trump delivered what was billed as a calming speech. One Wall Street analyst called it “the most expensive speech in history.”

The bumbler-in-chief when on: “And rather than spending the money — and I’m a business person — I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

Tell that to the hospital workers who will likely be overwhelmed soon with patients who need services which in many areas just may not be available. 

As world markets tumbled from unrealistic and unsustainable heights, Trump went before the camera to peddle his unique brand of nonsense. No Churchillian honesty and candor for the guy who bankrupted a casino, rather we get bombast and misinformation. The number of coronavirus cases in the country stood at 15 at the time with every credible expert predicting a serious increase almost immediately. “Within a couple of days,” Trump said, it “is going to be down to close to zero.” We are now well over 1,000 cases. 

Asked a few days later if he’d been briefed that as many as 100 million Americans could be exposed to the virus Trump didn’t exactly channel FDR in a fireside chat. “I’ve been briefed on every contingency you could possibly imagine. Many contingencies. A lot of positive. Different numbers, all different numbers, very large numbers, and some small numbers too … Be calm. It’s really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen.”

Amid all the other chaos this week we haven’t heard much about Afghanistan. We will. It, too, will be a disaster. 

We are all advised not to touch our faces these days, but in moments like we’ve been experiencing a face palm every few hours seems entirely reasonable. 

—–0—–

Further reading:

  • A serious recession is looming. “The US economy could shrink by 2% in the first quarter and 3% in the second, JPMorgan projected, while the eurozone economy could contract by 1.8% and 3.3% in the same periods.”
  • The Atlantic’s James Fallows on why Trump’s Oval Office speech was such a flop. “Until Trump,” Fallows writes, “other presidents have applied the ‘show, don’t tell’ policy when it comes to their own competence. They want to show they are acting the way the country would hope, so they don’t have to say it.” Trump can’t do it.
  • Since most of us are spending a lot of time at home these days…what to watch on Netflix. I recommend The Irishman.
  • Thanks for reading…and please pass along to anyone who might be interested.

2020 Election, Russia, Trump

And Putin Smiles…

Everyone who has studied the facts – a notable exception being the president of the United States – knows that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin directed specific measures to help elect Donald Trump in 2016. 

All the nation’s intelligence agencies, the relevant Congressional committees, numerous independent analysts, volumes of reporting and a special counsel confirm what the Russians did. That elements of one political party and its leader dismiss the Russian malevolence simply cannot change the facts. 

Vladimir Putin, the man along with Donald Trump, who has remade the Republican Party

It doesn’t help the Republican argument for dismissing the facts that some members of the party appear to be deeply compromised by connections to shadowy foreign actors. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, for example, has been the recipient of campaign contributions from now indicted operatives tied to Ukrainian oligarchs who are in turn connected to Moscow. Congressman Devin Nunes has similar connections. A former Republican congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, has admitted his contacts with the email leaker Julian Assange whose activities demonstrably helped Trump in the last election. McCarthy once reportedly said he was convinced that both Trump and Rohrabacher were essentially paid Russian agents

Nor does it help GOP credibility that some like Idaho Senator Jim Risch cheerfully dismisses the seriousness of the Russian effort by saying Russians have been doing this kind of thing for a long time. Almost identical words come out of the mouth of Trump’s new hyper-partisan and demonstrably unqualified director of national intelligence. 

The “this is nothing new” rationalization is, of course, preposterous. Only recently have American political campaigns involved massive use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and only a sophisticated former KGB operative like Putin could elevate international mischief to a foreign policy, which is precisely what the Russians have accomplished. 

Amid the Trumpian chaos it’s easy to forget that the president’s former campaign manager is in jail for hiding his financial involvement with Russian-connected Ukrainian oligarchs and his former national security advisor and oldest political advisor are headed to jail for lying about various aspect of their own involvement with Russia. 

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with then Vice President Richard Nixon in 1959. Republican skepticism of Russia goes way back, but has effectively ended with Trump

It must be particulary gratifying for Putin that he has helped install a Republican president and assisted in the profound corruption of a political party that in no small sense owes its modern existence to decades of hostility to Russia. From Warren Harding to Ronald Reagan, the GOP warned of the evil intentions of an evil empire. Republicans, led by Joe McCarthy and a generation of Cold War hawks, both politicized and profited by their anti-communism.

American foreign policy from 1945 to the 21st Century was defined by a contest between the Kremlin and American leadership of a western alliance determined to check Russian advancement. While much of the blustering was overblown, not all was mere partisan hyperbole. Stalin and a successor of Russian dictators did foment revolution, did vie for global dominance and did threaten American interests. Putin is cut from the same cloth.

Yet, now a Republican president and much of the party’s rank and file dismiss Russia as Risch does as “overrated” and Putin and his henchmen as, “These guys, they are all bluster.” 

Now comes the realization that the leading candidate of the other major political party is also becoming a channel for Russian involvement in American politics

“I suspect that, for our people [at the top], [Bernie] Sanders looks like the mad professor from ‘Back to the Future,’” Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann told Julia Ioffe, the Russian-born American journalist who provides some of the most searching current insight into Putin’s motives. 

Bernie Sanders, the would-be Democratic front runner, is a convenient vehicle for sowing discord in American politics. Putin knows it if many of us don’t

In essence the old lefty Bernie, always willing to put the best gloss on Castro or the Sandinistas, is a great vehicle for Putin, “very convenient for starting a pan-American brawl,” in the words of the Russian political scientist. Sanders is, of course, less dangerous than Trump, but such an easy mark for Trump’s demagoguery, and Putin’s. The Russian manipulator loves it, Schulmann said recently, when Americans “fight each other while we lay another gas pipeline somewhere!” 

Amid the clear evidence of Russian support for Trump is the equally obvious fact, as American intelligence agencies have reportedly confirmed, that Putin will advance Sanders’ candidacy because he knows it will both help his favorite Republican and sow discourse in the American body politics. Again, the Russian political scientist, Schulmann, puts a fine point on the Kremlin strategy: “Our candidate is chaos,” she says. 

Putin has a plan and it is succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. He elevates his own economically challenged and ethically bereft country by diminishing western democracy. To disadvantaged Russians, plagued by a police state mentality, bombarded with official propaganda and held in check by a collection of corrupt oligarchs who loot the nation’s resources, Putin’s rule doesn’t look so bad particularly compared to an American democracy divided by race and class and ruled by a narcissistic authoritarian who constantly attacks the courts, the press and his opponents. Our chaos is Putin’s catharsis. 

A divided Europe works to Vlad’s advantage, so he generously encourages Brexit and cheerleads to weaken NATO. Putin longs to control and plunder Ukraine, as Stalin once did, and Donald Trump is his useful idiot in helping with that strategy. Since the time of the czars Russia has lusted after a starring role in the Middle East. Trump has obliged. 

If there is any doubt that the modern Republican Party – what’s left of it – is playing out its role in this brutal strategy you need look no farther than Trump’s recent dismissal of Joseph McGuire, the former Navy Seal admiral cashiered as director of national intelligence. McGuire was fired for doing his job, especially warning about Russian methods and intentions. The silence over the firing and the subsequent promotion of a Trump loyalist to the critical role garnered nary a word of pushback from GOP politicians. Risch, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was silent, signaling his acceptance. 

It was left to retired Admiral William McRaven, the guy who led the effort to find and kill Osama bin Laden, to speak the truth about Trump and the GOP. “As Americans, we should be frightened — deeply afraid for the future of the nation,” McRaven wrote in the Washington Post. “When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security — then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.” 

We should be frightened. The courage is running out of American democracy. It’s happening right in front of our eyes. 

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Further reading:

2020 Election, Economy, Trump

Corruption and Incompetence…

Two dominant themes prevail in the current presidential administration: corruption and incompetence. They work together well, one complimenting the other and advancing the steady slide toward a new age of American authoritarianism.

A corrupt administration needs incompetence (and of course acquiesce) in order to continue its corruption. You can’t have independent and effective watchdogs and get away indefinitely with systematic corruption. The authoritarian needs to assert power and perhaps the most effective way to do so is to purge career public servants and replace them with incompetents willing to follow orders no matter what. 

Corruption and incompetence: hallmarks of the Republican administration under Donald Trump

At the same time an incompetent administration reinforces with citizens the idea that a strong, decisive leader, even a corrupt one, is required to make sense of the chaos all around. Donald Trump has mastered the corruption and incompetence approach to modern politics and his handy enablers in the Republican Party seem just fine with how he has warped and corroded public affairs. 

The president used his inherent constitutional power this week in a nevertheless corrupt and unlawful way. Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of 11 white collar criminals, a who’s who of grifters, crooks and low life’s, as the New York Times noted “who were convicted on charges involving fraud, corruption and lies.”

Leading the list of recipients of Trump favors to the criminal class was former Illinois Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich, a thuggish character who would not be out of place in the cast of a Scorsese film about the mob. It’s worth remembering what Blago, who was impeached and removed from office by his state’s legislature and then convicted of assorted crimes, did to get 14 years in prison. It’s a tidy list: racketeering, bribery, wire fraud, and attempted extortion. The former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the former governor called what Blagojevich did “a political corruption crime spree.” 

In a state steeped in political corruption, Rod Blagojevich established a new standard for sleaze. Of course, Trump commuted his 14-year sentence

Just for good measure Blago tried to extort an executive of a children’s hospital – a children’s hospital – “in in exchange for a Medicaid rate increase for pediatric specialists” and he shook down a racetrack owner in exchange for approving favorable legislation.

In a state known historically for its political corruption Blagojevich’s crimes were in a new class of rancid. Trump, however, called Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence – he served 8 years – a “tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence, in my opinion.” And we know his judgment is, like his Ukraine phone call, “perfect.” 

Never mind that the Illinois legislature, the U.S. Justice Department, a jury of his peers and a federal judge dealt in a systematic and through manner with Blagojevich’s crimes, and the same can be said for the other reprobates Trump lavished with his favors. Corruption in the time of Trump comes in many forms, not least in the doing of favors for the well-placed and wealthy. It’s additionally been widely noted that the crimes the president is excusing, and effectively sanctioning, are much the same as what he will likely face once out of office.  

Which brings us back to the incompetent and the central role an Idahoan is playing in helping Trump carry out additional degradation of the federal government. 

Senator Mike Crapo presided over a lengthy confirmation hearing recently for a Trump nominee to the board of the Federal Reserve. To watch the hearing, as I did, was to witness an eyewatering display of Trump sycophancy, even by Crapo standards. 

The nominee being considered by the Crapo-chaired Banking Committee is Judy Shelton, an economic theorist, one-time champion of a return to the gold standard and Trump acolyte, who is so far out of the economic mainstream that several of Crapo’s Republican colleagues bombarded her with critical questions. Shelton squirmed and prevaricated under the interrogation of Alabama Republican Richard Shelby who pressed her about past statements and positions that she has now dramatically jettisoned.  

Trump’s Federal Reserve nominee Judy Shelton has shifted and shaped her views to please the president who demands loyalty not competence

Shelton’s economic views have flopped around like the gyrations of a junk bond. She was critical of low interest rates during the Obama Administration. Now she’s for them. She was once part of an advocacy group favoring the gold standard and wrote extensively about it. Now she says never mind. Shelton has said she had no particular regard for the historic political independence of the Fed, clearly a qualification for a president would regularly bullies the central bank’s chairman. Under questioning she twisted unconvincingly away from many past positions. If you have a checking account you might wonder why the Federal Reserve would have a director who opposes federal deposit insurance, a fixture of American financial life since the Great Depression. Shelton has advocated that position, too. 

Asked to rate Shelton’s performance before Crapo’s committee, Shelby, the committee’s chair before Crapo, said dismissively: “She performed.” Shelby then added, “I have a lot of concerns, especially even after the hearing. I’m thinking about it, talking to some of my colleagues.” 

Republicans Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania John Kennedy of Louisiana, normally down-the-line Trump supporters, made similar comments. Crapo did not. He was too busy carrying Trump water to stir himself in the face of such economic incompetence and intellectual dishonesty. 

Trump wants, of course, a Federal Reserve composed of mindless flunkies who place their loyalty to him above all else, even if that means repudiating every position they’ve ever held. For his part, Crapo praised Shelton as “very solid” and echoed Trump in complaining about an “orchestrated, calculated effort” to defeat her nomination. 

One voice questioning Shelton’s intellectual honesty is the conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru, the senior editor of National Review, not exactly a squishy liberal. The criticism that Crapo chalks up to a hit job is more correctly, as Ponnuru wrote recently, a legitimate concern that Shelton “is unlikely to exercise the steady and independent judgment that one would like to see from a central bank. They are, however, criticisms that can be defeated if she has a solid explanation for how her views have changed.” One doubts even Crapo can explain why Shelton’s views have so obviously changed. 

As is often the case the simplest answer is the correct one. Shelton wanted to be nominated and she bent her views to please a president who cares not a whit about competence. 

(Since this column was submitted for publication Trump named another incompetent loyalist, Richard Grenell, as Director of National Intelligence. Grenell, before becoming a divisive ambassador to Germany, was a frequent Fox News talking head. He was designated “acting director,” which allows the president – and fellow Republicans – to avoid Senate confirmation, a battle that would fully expose the fact that Grenell has zero experience related to the sensitive and critical job he now holds. More proof of Trump’s demands for loyalty over competence._

As the Senate decides what to do with Shelton’s appointment, Crapo may yet show some rare independence and join the chorus of critics who don’t want to see the Federal Reserve become just one more incompetent branch of the Trump White House, a neutered, subservient vehicle to carry out the president’s economic whims.

But don’t count on it. 

As conservative columnist Michael Gerson recently noted, “A nation in need of Republican leaders has found flunkies instead.” And the flunkies have bequeathed us the now central tenants of Republican government: corruption and incompetence, the hallmarks of an authoritarian administration. 

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Further reading:

  • Maine Republican Susan Collins, once the most independent of senators, has now tied her electoral fortunes to Donald Trump is now the most unpopular incumbent senator in the country. Rebecca Traister explains why in a profile that is an example of great political reporting.
  • Benjamin Moffit writes in The Guardian about why rightwing “populists” are winning political battles around the world.
  • Michael Malloy has an outstanding piece here on the decades long effort to clean up the massive Superfund site in Montana – the Berkeley Pit.
  • And…if you are a baseball fan – or even not – do yourself a favor and read this New Yorker piece on the great Roger Angell, 99 years young.