Bush, Politics, Trump

The Last Non-Despised President…

          “The nation has become spectacularly meaner, to the point that George H. W. Bush is likely to be remembered as the last President of the Republic not to have been intensely despised by a significant portion of its population.” – Thomas Mallon in The New Yorker

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Former President George H.W. Bush is being fondly remembered as a man of character and kindness, a president who certainly made serious mistakes (don’t they all), but one who also exercised power with – to use one of his favorite words – “prudence.” The remembrances make the contrast between the late president and the current one all the more stark.

George H.W. Bush – 41

Washington Post columnist Max Boot, a fierce critic of Donald Trump and author of a scathing critique of the modern Republican Party called The Corrosion of Conservatism, wonders “how, in the space of a quarter-century, did we go from President Bush to President Trump?” The answer is complicated, as one suspects Bush 41 understood. He could be a self-reflective president, unlike the current one.

Mr. Rogers and John Wayne…

The comedian Dana Carvey made a mini-career of impersonating Bush on Saturday Night Live, exaggerating the preppy president’s gestures and speech for comic effect.

Comedian Dana Carvey performs his imitation of President George Bush in 1992.

After hearing of Bush’s death, I watched Carvey’s surprise White House appearance toward the very end of his presidency – H.W. had just lost to Bill Clinton – and came away thinking it takes a comedian to begin to understand the ying and yang of Bush. The 41st president was a genuinely brave Naval aviator, an aristocratic New Englander remade into a Texas oil man, a failed Senate candidate, a fierce partisan, a CIA director, a loyal vice president and a man who ruined his presidency by doing the right thing.

Perhaps Bush should have known that a new breed of Republican disrupters – read Newt Gingrich – would never cut him slack for raising taxes in service of reducing the deficit. Unlike the rest of the GOP, Bush never forgot that cutting taxes almost always leads to bigger deficits. Voodoo economics is not fake news. The moment marked a turning point away from responsible, bipartisan governing.

Carvey said his Bush voice was a mixture of Mr. Rogers – “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” – and John Wayne, a certain clipped, confident shorthand that often saw Bush mangle a phrase, but still convey his essential meaning. In a way Bush governed – evidence of his better angels – like Fred Rogers. He was prudent, careful and kind. He signed the Americans with Disability Act, a landmark piece of legislation that showed the country and its politics at its best. Bush, surrounded by adults like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, presided over a peaceful end of the Cold War, a moment we now take for granted that might have gone horribly wrong. Bush knew that an international coalition was needed to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and also knew that a contained Saddam, as thuggishly brutal as his regime was, was better for the region than the decades of turmoil his son unleashed by engaging in regime change.

Prudent isn’t a bad epitaph.

But, if Bush governed like the essentially decent, pragmatic, mostly moderate Republican he was, he campaigned as something else. After losing the GOP nomination to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bush embraced, or at least accepted, the sharp, divisive, negative style that came out of the election cycle. We remember the Reagan landslide (with Bush as his vice president) as a major turning point in American politics, but that election also featured the first widespread use of the independent expenditure campaign. Exploiting the liberalization of campaign finance limits, independent campaigns went on the attack in a major way in 1980. Reagan benefited, but so did a new generation of political operatives, including Paul Manafort, Roger Ailes, Roger Stone and Lee Atwater. Their essential negative tactics, constructed of fear, division and, yes, racism, continue to shape GOP campaigns, conservative media and the current occupant of the White House.

When Bush got his own shot at the White House in 1988 he campaigned like John Wayne, all American flag factories, assaults on the ACLU and race baiting with the infamous Willie Horton references. Horton, an African-American convicted of murder, raped a white woman and stabbed her partner while on prison furlough, a program in place in Massachusetts when Bush’s opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis, was in office.

The ad…

Technically the Bush campaign didn’t run the “Willie Horton ad,” but left that dirty work to something called the National Security Political Action Committee, an independent expenditure campaign supposedly independent of the Bush campaign. Bush did, however, repeatedly invoke Horton on the stump and Atwater, his campaign manager, really did say: “If we can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win the election.”

Bush insisted to his biographer Jon Meacham that the references to Horton and the furlough issue were about Dukakis being soft on crime and none of it was meant as a race-based “dog whistle” to fire up the increasingly white base of the Republican Party. Yet as Meacham notes, “In truth, in the tangled politics of that difficult year, as so often in American life, [the references] ended up being about both.”

Bush and Dukakis, 1988

Dukakis, of course, was a perfectly awful candidate – remember him riding around in a tank with a funny looking helmet – and Bush won that election decisively, if not altogether honorably. Bush recorded in his diary, as Meacham reports, that critics would long complain that he had taken the low road to the White House. Bush, ever the pragmatist, wrote simply: “I don’t know what we could do differently. We had to define this guy [Dukakis].”

When the pragmatic Bush tried to compromise with a tax and budget deal his “prudent” approach was rejected by many in his party, none less than Gingrich, who cared less about governing and the nation’s future than he did about a generation of political power for the political right. It’s ironic that while people across the political spectrum praise Bush’s style and basic decency, one of his signature accomplishments – the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – is daily trashed by the current non-governing Republican Party. In the end, Bush – Willie Horton and all – was too much the pragmatist, too much a pro, too much a policy wonk for a party owned now for a man as far removed from Bush as decency is removed from vulgarity.

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          “How different is Trump’s Republican party from Bush 41’s? George H. W. Bush signed the Americans With Disability Act in 1991. Donald Trump mocks the disabled. George H. W. Bush summoned a coalition of 35 countries for the first Gulf War. Donald Trump attacks even our closest allies, England and Canada, and talks about NATO like it was a deadbeat tenant. President Bush negotiated the original North American Free Trade Agreement. Donald Trump calls Mexicans ‘rapists’ and brags he has ordered armed U.S. troops to respond with deadly force to brown people throwing rocks at the border. George H. W. Bush celebrated charity and kindness. Donald Trump mocks a ‘thousand points of light.’ George H. W. Bush enlisted at 18, the Navy’s youngest pilot, in civilization’s last great battle against tyranny. Donald Trump dodged military service multiple times, celebrates tyrants and defends Nazi’s as ‘good people on both sides.’”

          –  Republican strategist Stewart Stevens

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Thinking about George H.W. Bush I’m reminded of the words of the great British historian Julian Jackson, author of a marvelous biography of “le grand Charles” De Gaulle. “All biographers,” Jackson writes, “must guard against the temptation to impose excessive coherence on their subject.” And so it is with the 41stAmerican president.

A Man in Full…

Let’s remember Bush then as a man in full, a Mr. Rogers with a John Wayne side.

Bush was furious about this cover…and now we know it was wrong

By all accounts Bush loved being president and he was at his best when making friends. As the greatest political journalist of our age, Richard Ben Cramer, wrote in one of the best political books of our age, What It TakesBush was once asked what made him think he could be President? The answer: “Well, I’ve got a big family, and lots of friends.” Indeed he did and I for one won’t quibble with the statement that his was the most successful one-term presidency in American history. It would be prudent.

But the man also badly, badly wanted a second term in 1992 and was willing, as Cramer wrote to do what he had to do to win. Bush actually told interviewer David Frost that he would, in fact, do anything – whatever it took – to win again. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot had different ideas and Bush lost.

Richard Ben Cramer’s landmark book on the 1988 presidential race

And we are left to wonder how we got from the man with all those friends, the guy who wrote the thousands of thank you notes and befriended, of all people, his old opponent Bill Clinton, the prudent guy, how we got from that guy to this guy.

Part of the answer has to be that leaders of the Republican Party, as well as the conservative media echo chamber created by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes, have been telling their supporters, at least since Bush 41, that compromise is bad, moderation is capitulation, Democrats are evil and that fear tactics in the service of winning elections are acceptable, indeed necessary. Part of the answer is also that the Republican Party has now fully bought the Trumpian notion that politics is about “feeding the angriest instincts of his base.

So much for Mr. Rogers.

It is a complicated story and the man being remembered this week was, too.

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Climate Change, Trump

Truth Decay…

My weekly column in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune

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In his famous Harper’s magazine essay about American politics, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, “one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen.”

Hofstadter wrote about what he called “the paranoid style of American politics” in 1964 when another Republican, Barry Goldwater, was threatening to destroy his party with fanciful notions about winning nuclear wars and staging for adoring crowds at his rallies what the journalist Richard Rovere called “great carnivals of white supremacy.”

The politically paranoid, the eminent historian argued, is a victim of his own lack of awareness where eversion to facts and his circumstances and experiences “deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him – and in any case he resists enlightenment.”

A week ago, while many Americans were still in a turkey and dressing induced post-Thanksgiving food coma (or perhaps shopping at a big box store on Black Friday), thirteen agencies of the federal government released a 1,600-page report on our changing climate. The first sentence of the report stated its most important conclusion in clear and unusually stark terms: “Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities.”

The report was purposely released on a holiday Friday in order to minimize the exposure of facts like this one: “Since the first National Climate Assessment was released (in 2000), the United States has endured 16 of the 17 warmest years on record, and the latest assessment paints a bleak picture of the future.”

Donald Trump, of course, dismissed the careful, factual work of scientists in four words. “I don’t believe it,” he said.

Such idiocy led Trevor Noah, the host of television’s Comedy Central, to ask: “How can one man possess all the stupidity of mankind. It’s like they edited his genes to give him superhuman stupidity.”

In order to agree with our scientist-in-chief you need to consciously discount the serious, detailed, principled work of 300 government and university scientists who drew upon the work of thousands of other scientists who have studied, analyzed and calculated what is happening to the climate.

This group includes two scientists I talked with this week who wrote chapters of the National Climate Assessment dealing with the Pacific Northwest. Dr. Philip Mote is the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. He earned his PhD at the University of Washington. Another author is Dr. Scott Lowe, the associate dean of the graduate school at Boise State University, a professor of environmental studies and a researcher on resource economics. He has his PhD from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Both scientists told me a key takeaway from the new climate report – the fourth such effort since 2000 – is that Pacific Northwest resource industries, including particularly timber, agricultural and fisheries, best get ready for an unpredictable new era of climate variability. More variability in stream flows. More low snowpack conditions. Reduction in irrigation capability. More variability in growing seasons.

Here are just three sentences from the report on climate impacts in the Northwest:

  • “Forests in the interior Northwest are changing rapidly because of increasing wildfireand insect and disease damage,attributed largely to a changing climate.”
  • “Impacts to the quality and quantity of forage will also likely impact farmers’ economic viability as they may need to buy additional feed or wait longer for their livestock to put on weight, which affects the total price they receive per animal.”
  • “Decreases in low- and mid-elevation snowpack and accompanying decreases in summer streamflow are projected to impact snow- and water-based recreation, such as downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, boating, rafting, and fishing.”

Dr. Mote, the Oregon State climate scientist, told me he recently went back and looked at the first national climate assessment. He described that effort as “educated speculation,” but now he says we know in detail what has been happening to the climate over the last two decades and the conclusions to be drawn are more certain and more emphatic. As the report says, “observational evidence does not support any credible natural explanations” for the amount of warming taking place “instead, the evidence consistently points to human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse or heat-trapping gases, as the dominant cause.”

Trump is not alone, of course, in his denial of evidence starring us in the face. And while the dismissal of decades of science is an insult to the very notion of truth – Dr. Mote calls it a “raw denial of knowledge” – it is also flat out dangerous. The scientists stress that we do have the ability to adapt and deal with much of the impact of climate change, but denying the existence of what is happening – the dangerous part – paralyzes any meaningful action and the longer we wait the less likely we’ll adapt well or at all.

Dr. Lowe, the Boise State researcher, says the rejection of fact-based science is frequently tied up with weird notions of a conspiracy theory that university and government scientists “have an agenda that is funded by someone.” This is pure nonsense. They are scientists seeking facts. They volunteer there expertise.

In the Trump Era the very idea of truth is taking a beating, “truth decay” one recent report called it. Meanwhile, debasing expertise and knowledge gets us an administration stocked with a knucklehead who blames California wildfires on “radical environmentalists” and puts the president’s son-in-law, a trust fund baby and New York real estate developer, in charge of crafting a Middle East peace plan. Such folks not only seek no enlightenment, they are supremely comfortable in their ignorance.

As you shift the competing “truth” about climate change ask yourself a simple question. Who are you going to believe: a bunch of scientists who have been studying an issue for decades and have their work double and triple checked by other scientists or a guy who bankrupted his casino?

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2018 Election, Brexit, Trump

Crass Self-Delusion…

          “Crass self-delusion is when you start with an ideological premise that you believe to be true even though it isn’t and then draw apparently reasonable conclusions from it.”

Columnist Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times

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One of the most remarkable, that is to say shocking, aspects of our current politics is the enormous degree of self-delusion that inflicts so many politicians and so many citizens. It seems to be an epidemic, or even a pandemic of ignorance that takes over minds and sickens them in the same way the great flu pandemic one hundred years ago infected so many millions world wide.

Theresa May: Going down with Britannia?

British Prime Minister Theresa May, for example, is hanging on by her fingernails, continuing to maintain the unalloyed fiction that the United Kingdom leaving the European Union will somehow be good for the British economy. The Brits call it Brexit and May and her self-delusional fellow Conservatives – and more than a few in the Labour Party – have been fussing for months over the terms of the exit from the European common market.

It is obvious now – as it was obvious when the U.K. voted to leave the EU – that accomplishing the trick of separating from Europe and still maintaining all the advantages of staying in Europe would simply be impossible. Yet, the delusion continues, while May’s government comes apart at the seams. It reminds me of one of the old silent film comedies produced by the legendary Mack Sennett – a bunch of clueless Keystone Cops running into walls, jumping through windows, generally making no sense whatsoever, while acting like they have it all under control.

Keystone Kops or pro-Brexit British pols?

As Feargus O’Sullivan writes at CityLab about May’s latest proposal: “If the deal scrapes through, it’s far from the brave new dawn that Brexit’s advocates insisted was just around the corner. It will still bind the country into accepting most E.U. rules (including a customs union) for the foreseeable future, while removing Britain’s ability to influence those rules as a union member.”

That is rather like your mother insisting you eat your peas and promising that you will have absolutely nothing to say about it the next time peas are served.

The brilliant Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, who possesses an Irishman’s unique ability to poke holes in what passes for logic among the British ruling class, says the backers of the delusional Brexit  scheme fall into three different categories of what he calls sheer ignorance. The first category is “deliberate unknowing,” a situation where “you are fully aware of something but then choose to suppress that consciousness.”

The smarter British politicians, May included, knew Brexit was a farce, but went along with the farce to maintain power … or something. The same type of delusion is rampant in Donald Trump’s America, particularly prevalent in the deep delusion infecting the Republican ruling class in Washington, D.C.

Republican politician after Republican politician labeled Trump unfit, a clown, a con man, a disaster, an ignorant buffoon and now – I’m thinking of you Lindsey Graham – they can’t get enough of their joker-in-chief. Trump hasn’t changed. “Deliberate unknowing” has, however, become the GOP’s SOP.

Case in point: On the evening of the recent mid-term elections Trump took to his favorite chalkboard, Twitter, to proclaim the election a great victory for Republicans. He doubled down the next day during a White House news conference saying, “To be honest — I’ll be honest, I thought it was a — I thought it was a very close to complete victory.”

Right. Some kind of victory.

Democrats won 35-plus seats in the House of Representatives, taking control of that body. They held off what might have been a blood bath, while defending a slew of vulnerable seats in Senate. And they repaired much of the Midwest damage the party suffered in 2016 by winning a number of governor’s races. Oh, yes, Democrats picked up two Republican held Senate seats, including one in Arizona that has been in GOP hands since 1995, and now Democrats hold every congressional seat in Orange County, California.

John Wayne is spinning somewhere. But, it was “very close to complete victory” or, put another way, acknowledging that was not “very close to complete victory” is the very definition of “deliberate unknowing.”

That Trump news conference was, of course, where the president created the pretense to strip a CNN  reporter of his White House credentials. A silly, self-delusional move by Trump and a White House staff ever more unmoored from reality.

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           “We’re working on many things. Criminal justice reform we’re working on very hard. We have a meeting today, do you know about that? We have a meeting today.” Donald J. Trump in an interview with The Daily Caller

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O’Toole’s second category of ignorance is the “crass self-delusion” mentioned at the head of this piece: the ability to convince yourself that a long-held ideological position is correct in the face of vast evidence to the contrary.

Our national political delusion in this category could be something like, oh, the huge Trump-GOP tax cut. The tax cut was, or course, promised as a amazing boon to the middle class and a launching pad for vast economic growth that would “pay for itself.” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell actually proclaimed, ““I’m totally convinced this is a revenue-neutral bill.” It wasn’t. Now – big surprise – McConnell says we’ll need to cut Medicare and Social Security to address the deficit created by the tax cut that was going to pay for itself.

The Republican ideology of tax cutting is certainly the stuff of true belief, the premise that tax cuts  overwhelmingly working to the benefit of the wealthiest are good for all of us is a myth, easily refuted.  The outcome of the entire tax cut charade has been to grow the deficit and threaten the broader economy. As the New York Times noted recently: “the fiscal health of the United States is deteriorating fast, as revenues have declined sharply. The federal budget deficit — the gap between what the government collects in revenues and what it spends — rose to $779 billion in the 2018 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. That was a 17 percent increase from the prior year.”

Oh, well, in the age of Crass Delusion, with a president who lies with reckless abandon about absolutely everything, it may seem more comfortable to cling to the ideologically certain end of the ignorance continuum rather than grapple with messy old facts.

By the way, the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has done us a big favor. He’s actually been tracking Trump’s lies since Day One. It’s a big job, taking a mild-mannered Canadian – they really are our best friends – to keep track of the American president’s delusions, er, lies. Dale calculates “3,749 false claims” since Trump’s inauguration, the job of tracking the lies made easier by the frequency of repetition.

“On his fifth day in office, Trump baselessly alleged widespread voter fraud,” Dale wrote recently. “He did the same thing this past week. In his third month in office, Trump falsely claimed that the United States has a $500 billion trade deficit with China. He has said the same thing more than 80 times since.

“Listen to this president long enough, and you can almost sense when a lie is coming. If Trump tells a story in which an unnamed person calls him “sir,” it’s probably invented. If Trump claims he has set a record, he probably hasn’t. If Trump cites any number at all, the real number is usually smaller.”

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          “The Democrats want to invite caravan after caravan of illegal aliens into our country. And they want to sign them up for free health care, free welfare, free education, and for the right to vote.” – Donald J. Trump just before the mid-term elections

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The final O’Toolean category of delusion is what he calls plain old “pig ignorance” as in “the genuine hallmarked, unadulterated, slack-jawed, open-mouthed, village idiot variety.”  In Trumpworld where to begin?

How about we send several thousand U.S. soldiers to the Mexican border at tremendous cost and at no small disruption to their personal lives. Let’s succeed in politicizing the military as part of a pre-election stunt in an effort to stop a “dangerous caravan” of displaced persons – poor, tired, desperate people – who pose absolutely no threat to the United States.

Political Hack…Attorney General

Or, how about this for pig ignorance? Appoint a grifting hot tub entrepreneur to run the U.S. Justice Department and somehow think that is either proper or a good idea. Trump might well succeed in getting his new acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, to fire special counsel Robert Mueller in hopes of heading off the continuing investigation into Russian interference with our elections and potential Trump campaign involvement in that interference. But do any but the most delusional among us think that Mueller can’t outfox a guy who once tried to raise money using bitcoin to finance research into time travel – this is true, by the way – and seems pretty sure Bigfoot is a thing (also true)?

I’ll put my bitcoin on the former FBI director and decorated Marine combat veteran. And I’d take double or nothing that Whitaker is gone in about three Mooches.

Or, we could demonstrate our real grasp of reality by uniquely blaming the massive and deadly California wildfires on a lack of proper forest management rather than the real culprits – extended drought and the effects of ever worsening climate change. Trump actually suggested “raking and cleaning things” would  eliminate the causes of the massive fires. No, really, he did say that.

And we could make those claims even as the administration’s own budget proposal for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management actually calls for reduced funding for approaches that might help mitigate some of the effects of wildfire.

“Pig ignorance” is living your entire adult life in a gilded enclave in Manhattan, never getting out of a bubble made of your own self-delusion and faking that you could tell a fire line from buffet line.

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         “The Sunday Times reported Britain’s army had been ordered to step up contingency plans to help police maintain public order in case of food and medicine shortages after a ‘no deal’ Brexit, citing an unnamed ‘well-placed army source.’”

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Trump visits California fie victims, calls for more “raking”

In all their ignorance the Brexit hardliners may well succeed in destroying the U.K. economy and crippling European unity at the very moment dystopian nationalism is on the rise on the continent and in Trump’s own fevered imagination. O’Toole reminds us of how wacky the language of the pro-Brexit crowd has been and Trump’s rantings aren’t that far removed.

“Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this [unifying Europe], and it ends tragically,” the loathsome Boris Johnson said just before Brits voted to drive themselves off a cliff. He was suggesting that the European Union was attempting this dastardly Hitlerian deed of unity “by different methods” than the Nazi’s or Napoleon used, but that the effect on the U.K. would be just the same as Trafalgar and the Blitz of 1940. This entire business is a paranoid fantasy, a political psychosis, which sounds much like the daily news feed out of the White House.

No doubt we are stuck with Trump and all his delusions and ignorance for some time to come. His GOP enablers appear to be ready to double down on a strategy of hanging with him while he hangs them out. The mid-terms may have put up a political speed bump on the highway of craziness, but the deliberate unknowing, crass self-delusion and pig ignorance seems sure to continue. One entire political party has embraced nonsense.

Which is not to say that we can’t stop any time we want from buying into wacko conspiracy theories and  easily proven fallacies and we can stop listening to raving, ignorant people. Maybe the Brits will yet come to their senses. Perhaps we will, too.

Thomas Jefferson actually wrote something about this into the Declaration of Independence. “Let facts be submitted to a candid world,” ol’ Tom wrote. Good lord, let’s get on with that idea. Pig ignorance is just so stupid.

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2018 Election, Trump

The Order of the Day…

          “It’s up to Trump and his morally dormant Republican Party to ensure that Pittsburgh remains a spasm of the awful past — and not a harbinger of an even worse future.”

Richard Cohen, Washington Post

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The most distressing aftermath of the last awful week has to be the lack of condemnation, even the absence of demands for basic decency, directed at the president of the United States on the part of the nation’s ruling political party.

Outside the Pittsburgh synagogue this week

Search high and low if you will and try to find any level of moral or human response, let alone condemnation, of the hate filled tone established and perpetuated by the president. The response to Trump’s increasingly unhinged rhetoric from GOP members of Congress is, well, unlike him silence.

The terrible events perpetrated by an anti-Semitic killer at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a white supremacist gunman in Louisville and a wacko Trump supporting pipe bomber in Florida do bring appeals for lower decibel language from all sides. The first responders are properly praised since that is safe territory. The thoughts and prayers are extended. But the ranting racist president in the White House, he gets a pass from Republicans.

The president, as usual, has been all over the place in the wake of the largest anti-Semitic mass murder in U.S. history and a mass assassination attempt against Trump’s various opponents. He’s consulted his old, worn playbook – condemning reporters, vilifying opponents, accepting chants of “lock her up” at his rallies, spreading more hate and fueling more conspiracy. Fellow Republicans, well, they’ve been sitting on their lips hoping against hope that they can somehow slide past the mid-terms without great losses.

You simply cannot find a word of condemnation, concern or caution directed by a Republican toward the president. Columnist Richard Cohen calls the Vichy Republicans what they are – “moral cowards.”

Donald Trump should not – and ultimately will not – be held accountable for the senseless, racial and religious violence that has become an all-to-regular feature of American life. He has, however, undeniably made worse the deep and persistent hatred of “others” that has long and sadly been a part of the American story. He fans the flames of division. Hate and fear are the twin pillars of his strategy, such as it is, in the interest of ginning up the Republican base. You have to go back to the 1800s in American history to find such an openly racist, hateful president. And I don’t want to be unkind to Andrew Johnson or John Tyler.

Trump supporters and enablers will continue to deny the harsh reality of his racism, but the evidence is everywhere to see: the manufactured pre-election “crisis” at the border where a relative handful of desperate Central American refugees – not illegal immigrants – are fleeing a chaos of death and poverty that the United States, at least in part, helped create; the awful, hateful language about “Mexican rapists” and “low IQ” African-Americans; the Obama birther garbage; calling a black candidate for governor of Florida “a thief;” the proclamation that the president himself is a “nationalist” – code really for “white nationalist;” the equal apportionment of responsibility for the neo-Nazis atrocities in Charlottesville in 2017 and attacks on “globalists,” a term the white ultra-right uses to slander George Soros and Jews in general. And all that just constitutes Trump’s highlight reel of hate.

French far-right Front National (FN) party president Marine Le Pen – more and more the modern GOP looks like the movement she leads – anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, white supremacist

It is being said, and properly so, that Trump did not create this climate of fear and hatred, but he most certainly has exploited it for his own purposes. The Republican Party Trump now owns lock, stock and barrel (pardon the analogy) has allowed the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower and Reagan to resemble something disturbingly like the racist French political party led by the ultra-right Marine Le Pen. It is an awful realization that Trump has brought the GOP – and the nation – so very low in such a short time.

And where are the legislative Republicans?

“If there is such a thing as a hate crime,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, “we saw it at Kroger [in Louisville] and we saw it in the synagogue again in Pittsburgh. Horrible, criminal acts.” But beyond saying everyone should tone down their rhetoric, McConnell has no words for Trump. No admonition to back off, to stop spreading fear and fostering more hate. McConnell remains, like most every elected Republican, afraid to take on Trump’s hatred for fear of the backlash from those motivated by Trump’s hatred.

He also likes the judges and the tax cut. It is a Catch-22 of political and moral abdication of a type rarely, if ever, seen in our lifetimes.

The Trump inspired pipe bomber’s van covered with signs of his rage

Where once Republicans were guilty of transmitting “dog whistles” aimed at “others,” their president today is, as Cohen wrote this week, offering a “validation” of his own hate fueled conspiracy theories. The Pittsburgh murderer of 11 people at their place of worship was prompted it seems not only by the killer’s anti-Semitism, but also by his hatred of the fact that Jews where actually living their beliefs and adding migrants fleeing their own versions of hell.

“Trump’s allies,” as Jonathan Chait has noted, “have gone from justifying his reality-show authoritarian persona as a necessary expedient to embracing it as a positive good.”

And more from Chait’s analysis in New York Magazine:

“It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 percent accurate,” a senior Trump-administration official told the Daily Beast, defending the president’s fear mongering attacks on a caravan of potential refugees. “This is the play,” Scott Reed, a strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the Washington Post. “It’s a standard tactic to use fear as a motivating choice at the end of a campaign, and the fact is the fork in the road is pretty stark.” In Texas, when a fan at a Ted Cruz speech exclaimed about [Cruz’s opponent] Beto O’Rourke, “Lock him up!,” Cruz answered, “Well, you know, there’s a double-­occupancy cell with Hillary Clinton.”

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If you need a chilling reminder of what such moral bankruptcy can portend take an hour or so and read a remarkable little book by the French writer Eric Vuillard. The book – The Order of the Day – describes in chilling detail two events that seemed less than remarkable at the time, but we now know forecast a cataclysm outcome.

Eric Vuillard’s remarkable little book…

“Vuillard’s book is a powerful story that relates with a simplicity free of mannerisms,” Gaby Levin wrote earlier this year in Haaretz, “two historical events connected to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and to Europe’s blind advance toward the abyss in the years before the war. Vuillard seeks to show how ‘sometimes the greatest catastrophes herald their arrival in small steps.’”

The first event was an unremarkable meeting early in 1933 in Berlin when 24 top German industrialists – we recognizes their companies to this day, Siemens, Bayer, Allianz, BASF, among others – pledged financial support to the then-struggling Nazi Party. Going along with the Nazis was an easy call for Germany’s industrial elite. Adolf Hitler was, of course, full of overheated rhetoric. The businessmen didn’t respect him, but they were sure he could be contained and after all he would probably be good for business.

The second event, five years later, recounts the Nazi takeover of Austria – the Anschluss – a series of cynical, opportunist, violent moves by Hitler that had they been resisted by politicians in Europe who should have known better could well have changed the course of history.

In recalling this history we should remember that many elected Republicans once saw through their current all-powerful leader. Senator Lindsey Graham, now Trump’s South Carolina toady, once warned, “If we nominate Trump we will get destroyed…and we will deserve it.” Today he tweeted his support for Trump’s immigration policy.

Moral bankruptcy breds moral bankruptcy – Cruz and Trump

Ted Cruz, the loathsome creature seeking a second Senate term in Texas, called Trump a “coward” after Candidate Trump insulted Cruz’s wife and tied his father to John Kennedy’s murder. The two will soon campaign together again in Texas.

———–

We are long past the point where we can expect, much as we might hope for it, Republicans, even in the mildest terms, to repudiate Donald Trump, his racism and his politics of hate. Moral bankruptcy begets moral bankruptcy.

Now, its up to the run of the mill American citizen to decide what kind of leadership they want and what kind of country they hope to inhabit. This is what elections are for. We shall see what happens as Trump likes to say and, while you contemplate your vote next week consider this:

Acclaimed historian Jill Lepore has written a remarkable new history of the United States, perhaps the most ambitious re-telling of the American story in generations. She sees the broad sweep of history in all that is happening around us. “I think we live in an age of tremendous political intolerance,” she said recently in an interview. “I think we live in an age where people don’t understand the nature of our political institutions.

Jill Lepore’s new history of the United States

“That really, really concerns me. Because it’s a symptom of the way people want to win by any means necessary. Because we’ve been given this kind of rhetoric of life or death, we’re on the edge of a cliff. It’s very hard for people to operate as a civic community interested in the public good in that kind of a climate.

“We all have contributed to the making of this climate, but I hope this is climate that can still change.”

I hope for change, too, but also acknowledge that we are indeed on the edge of a cliff.

——0——

Media, Politics, Trump

We Never Learn…

Note: My column this week in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune 

 ———–

Just when it seems that our politics can’t possibly produce yet one more head spinning moment we get one.

An amazing thing happened this week. The world laughed at the American president. While he was making a speech. At the United Nations.

Oh, I know, Trump fans will discount the importance of a spontaneous outburst of chuckling from the world’s diplomats. European elites, they will scoff. A reaction coming from African nations that are, well, it rhymes with lit holes.

Trump said the world was “laughing with me,” but of course that isn’t true

While it’s tempting to toss off yet another Trump moment as just the latest Trump moment the reaction to the president of the United States boasting about his greatness at the U.N. is really a symptom of a larger, more serious problem for the United States and the world. At the same time the United States has retreated from a position of international leadership we continue to suffer a difficult to correct deterioration of democratic practice at home. Unfortunately we are not alone.

As Edward Luce, a writer for the Financial Times, notes in his brilliant little book The Retreat of Western Liberalism, “Since the turn of the millennium, and particularly over the last decade, no fewer than twenty-five democracies have failed around the world, three of them in Europe (Russia, Turkey and Hungary.)” Luce is, of course, using the term “liberal” in the classic sense: liberal democracies encourage people to vote in free elections, they welcome dissent, they value a free press, they respect differences and find ways to compromise in the cause of an unruly, yet broadly universal understanding of progress.

Yet, the prevailing momentum in the world is not toward greater equality either political or economic. By one recent estimate, a third of the world’s people now live in democracies in decline. All the energy from the British exit from the European Union to new U.S. trade wars is in the direction of isolation, retrenchment and conflict. We see the telltale signs of this new world order playing out in real time. For 70 years the NATO alliance has provided security for Europe, Canada and the United States, yet the current administration, apparently ignorant of that history, picks fights those allies and plays nice with a Russian dictator. Rather than thoughtful engagement with China – Ed Luce calls the emergence of China as world power “the most dramatic event in economic history” – we apply time dishonored methods of tariffs and taxation that will soon enough hurt Idaho potato growers, Montana wheat farmers and Iowa soybean growers. China, meanwhile, consolidates its influence across the Pacific basin, while we tax ourselves thinking we will bring them to heel.

Americans are badly, one hopes not fatally, distracted at the moment. The constant political turmoil, the blind partisanship, the disregard for fundamental political and personal decency is part of a pattern across the globe. As the European scholar

Anne Applebaum put it recently, “Polarization is normal. More to the point … skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.”

Ask yourself a question: How much of what you hear and read about politics today do you really trust?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan

Authoritarians like Putin in Russia or Erdogan in Turkey have mastered manipulation on public opinion, they control the sources of information if they can, intimidate those they can’t and dominate and denigrate the rest. Democracy does not thrive in spaces where leaders label as “fake” or a “hoax” that with which they disagree. But demagogues do get ahead in societies where distracted citizens come to believe that nothing is real, that there are versions of the truth. More and more political leaders, even a candidate for governor in Idaho, seem comfortable with their own versions of Trump’s “fake news” mantra.

It used to be that political leaders, real political leaders, practiced the old political game of addition. How do I add to my support? How do I bring people together? How do we solve problems even if my side can’t prevail completely? How do we strengthen the often-fragile norms that define acceptable behavior? How do we strengthen the rule of law rather that assault it? Those were the days. Now it is all about juicing the base or perhaps even worse, depressing the vote.

The retreat of western liberalism is happening at precisely the moment the United States is fighting to lead the retreat. At a moment that demands American leadership, fresh thinking about old problems and a commitment to pluralistic societies, we are hunkered down building walls and denying climate change. And the world is laughing at words like, “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”

Ironically, Donald Trump’s moment at the United Nations this week is, like so much of the man’s story, a fulfillment of his own expectations. Trump “has always been obsessed that people are laughing at the president, says Thomas Wright, a European expert at the Brookings Institution. “From the mid-’80s, he’s said: ‘The world is laughing at us. They think we’re fools.’ It’s never been true, but he’s said it about every president. It’s the first time I’m aware of that people actually laughed at a president.”

Hegel: What we don’t learn…

The laughter is on us, as is the future. It is nowhere ordained that American democracy will forever flourish and carry on. In fact the opposite is true. Modern world history is the story of one democracy after another – Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s and Poland, Brazil and India today – facing internal turmoil, political polarization, decline or worse. We are not immune.

Friedrich Hegel, the great German philosopher put it succinctly, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

GOP, John McCain, Trump

It Was All So Predictable…

          Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, made the extraordinary admission in court on Tuesday that Mr. Trump had directed him to arrange payments to two women during the 2016 campaign to keep them from speaking publicly about affairs they said they had with Mr. Trump.

        “I participated in this conduct, which on my part took place in Manhattan, for the principal purpose of influencing the election” for president in 2016, Mr. Cohen said.

New York Times, August 22, 2018

—————-

         “We just learned longtime Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg was granted immunity in the Michael Cohen probe, becoming the latest figure close to President Trump to cooperate with investigators. Weisselberg follows Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, David Pecker and, of course, Cohen. Pecker, like Weisselberg, had immunity; the others got plea deals.”

Aaron Blake, The Washington Post

—————-

I composed most of what follows before we got the news early Saturday that Arizona Republican Senator John McCain had lost his fight with cancer. McCain, a flawed, often cantankerous politician of the old school, was also amazingly self-aware, a pithy, independent SOB who was tough and smart and funny. It seems strangely appropriate, as sad as it is, that John McCain left us just as Donald Trump, a man who has repeatedly disparaged this genuine American hero, has begun his decent into utter disgrace.

John McCain on the presidential campaign trail. October 28, 2008. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

This week, to remember Winston Churchill’s famous line, is not the end for Trump, perhaps not even the beginning of the end, but almost certainly the end of the beginning.

One remarkable thing about Donald Trump’s historic debasement of the American presidency, perhaps the most remarkable, is how completely predictable it was. It was all there to see from the very beginning. Now the only question is how much more damage this profoundly corrupt and ignorant man will do before he’s done, because it is increasingly clear that he will be done.

A characteristic of too many people intimately involved in politics is the ability – or the willingness – to suspend belief in the cause of a partisan victory, no matter the cost. That kind of suspension of belief is an absolute hallmark of the Trump Era and what the man has done to the Republican Party. Normally sane, sober, serious Republicans – many of them in the know from the get go – nevertheless made a devil’s bargain, accepting Trump as their leader in exchange for the hope and expectation of political gain.

Now these Republicans, finally coming to grips with the consequences of suspending belief about their leader, are well down the path toward the chaos and defeat that was all too predictable. If there is any political karma many of them will get precisely what they deserve come November.

The warning signs of where Trump would take Republicans and the country are almost too many to recount – the racially charged announcement speech with references to Mexican rapists, the clown car cast of jokers surrounding the campaign – Steve Bannon, Carter Page, Don, Jr., Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen – the mentally touched boasts, over the top superlatives and need for ego gratification (who talks like that?) and the “only I can fix it” policy pronouncements. All this nonsense was devoid of basic common sense and immune to even elemental fact checking, but Republicans from Paul Ryan to local legislators lapped it up.

Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, now convicted of tax fraud and facing trial on more charges

When Trump promised to release his tax returns and then didn’t his explanation was as much a sham as a diploma from Trump University. The obvious question was simply “what’s he got to hide?” Plenty it would seem. It was well known that American bankers had long refused to do business with Trump and now his long-time lawyer and chief financial officer have flipped, helping, it would appear, to peel back the multiple layers of corruption that will eventually drive Trump and the political party he now owns over a cliff.

Republicans, at least most of them, have long known that he was a conman, a grifter, and as Melania and the rest of us now know he’s a shameless and constant liar about absolutely everything. None of it was a surprise. None.

Some Republicans have taken to saying the president’s growing body of critics suffer from “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but they have it just backwards. Those who somehow convinced themselves that this profoundly flawed individual would somehow pull off the responsibilities of the most difficult job in the world were the truly deranged ones. His life, his businesses, everything he’s touched amounts to one big con. The derangement was thinking a life-long wise guy, a liar and cheat straight out of central casting fit for an episode of The Sopranos, would change at age 70. No one, of course, really believed the office would change the abhorrent behavior, the boorishness, the cruelty or the racism. Trump is studiously ignorant. That won’t change.

The “unindicted co-conspirator”

Now, as James Fallows wrote recently in The Atlantic, Republicans “confront a president who has been named in a felony guilty plea as having directed criminal activities. (It didn’t get this far or this crystal-clear with Richard Nixon.) Who is routinely discussed as a potential security risk by his own military and intelligence-agency officials. Who ridicules their former Senate colleague for not bending fully to his will as attorney general. Who is manifestly unable to contain his impulses and resentments, while holding a job whose most important qualification is temperamental control. Who …

“… The list of “who”s could go on, and any one of those 51 senators could complete it. But not a one of them will take a stand against this man, with a vote. Some give speeches. Some write op-eds. Many are “concerned.” Talk is something, but talk is not a vote.”

Devoid of empathy, imbued with a mean temper and an even nastier mean streak Trump was not the least bit prepared for the presidency and virtually every Republican who finally, sometimes reluctantly, but always with full knowledge, embraced him knew it. They knew all that has happened in recent days was not just possible, but likely. They knew even under the best case that a Trump presidency would be a certain kind of crappy show, a roiling cesspool of narcissism and self-interest. Yet, they have gone along settling for a tax cut for the best off and a Supreme Court that will be much more conservative than the country; going along all the way to seeing him implicated by his own lawyer in a felony meant to deceive voters about just what he is. The con man is now the “unindicted co-conspirator.”

Now what do Republicans do? They took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, but they won’t even authorize a subcommittee to investigate porn star hush money that was designed to minimize political damage days before a presidential election.

“It’s getting a little ugly,” Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican and next year’s presumptive GOP whip told Politico in what must be the most understated thing to come out of South Dakota this year. “Most of us need to work with the president where we can to move our agenda … it’s definitely a fairly big sideshow.” Right.

Trouble is “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” – Section 4, Article 2 of the United States Constitution – is a bit more than a sideshow. We knew all this was going to happen. It has. Now what?

————–

What a remarkable contrast between the beginning of last week and the end. The week began with two men close to the president confessing to and convicted of felonies and the man with likely the most intimate knowledge of Trump’s “business empire” began cooperating with prosecutors. Meanwhile, the president verbally assaulted – yet again – his own attorney general (and seems close to firing him) for refusing to interfere with an investigation into Trump’s campaign and personal conduct. Hardly a cricket is heard from elected Republicans.

The week ends with bipartisan tributes to Senator McCain, a crusty, candid, principled Republican who repeatedly stood up to Trump, called out Vladimir Putin and suffered multiple insults from a man who couldn’t carry his briefcase or come close to matching his courage.  In the scope of seven days we have all the proof we’ll ever need of the extent of the intellectual and moral rot that has overtaken the Grand Old Party.

Yet, Congressional Republicans know, and their tributes to McCain make clear, what they should be doing. The Arizona senator should be their model. That he is not is a national tragedy.

Eisenhower, Russia, Trump

What Putin Wants…

           “[Putin] became convinced that the Western strategy was a regime change vis-à-vis Russia. That’s his distorted version of history. He believes that even Gorbachev may have been an unwitting dupe of the West, but he certainly sees Yeltsin, and the whole experience of Russia in the ’90s, as a period in which the West took advantage of Russia and tried to marginalize it as a global power.” 

        Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow from 2001-2005 under President George W. Bush

—————

We now know – again – that agents of Russian military intelligence hacked emails of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, her staff, the Democratic National Committee and the party’s congressional campaign committee. Special Counsel Robert Mueller acting, we should remember as a result of a “true bill” approved by a grand jury made up of everyday ordinary Americans, indicted twelve Russian military operatives for those crimes last week.

The indictment alleges “a detailed and wide-ranging conspiracy to hack into the computers” of the aforementioned political people and organizations “and to reveal information in order to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

The latest Mueller indictment also indicates that Wikileaks conspired with the Russians to inject the stolen material into the American political bloodstream and that more than one American citizen communicated with the foreign agents during the 2016 campaign.

As they say just before the commercial break: stay tuned we will be back with more.

————

   “I would call it the rigged witch hunt, after watching some of the little clips. … I think that really hurts our country, and it really hurts our relationship with Russia.”

– President Trump’s after being briefed on the indictments of Russian military operatives.

———–

Despite the president’s many and fervent denials, I have always believed that someone in the Trump campaign orbit “colluded” with these Russians in order to maximize the timing and impact of the release of the stolen Democratic documents. The Trump campaign motive is pretty obvious. They wanted to win. They wanted to win so badly they were willing to countenance widespread foreign interference in an American presidential election. We don’t know this for sure, yet, but the Mueller indictment last week is clearly beginning to connect a lot of dots.

CNN illustration

There are, of course, other plausible explanations for why a campaign would get caught up in this kind of sleazy, illegal, borderline treasonous activity. Maybe the Russians really do have some incriminating information on Donald Trump. Maybe he and his family are in hock up to their eyeballs to Russian banks and oligarchs close to Putin. Maybe a naïve Donald Trump, Jr. just got played when he took the now infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives during the campaign. Any one of these explanations has the ring of truth. Perhaps they all ring in unison.

People still wonder why the smart guys around Richard Nixon, not to mention Nixon himself, thought they needed to break in to the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee in 1972. Nixon was going to win re-election against any conceivable Democratic opponent that year, but still he (perhaps) authorized the break in and certainly sanctioned the subsequent cover up. People have long done stupid things in pursuit of political power.

But, while Mueller continues his careful, even scholarly pursuit of the truth in the Trump-Russia matter, it would be wise for Americans – those appalled by what we already know as well as those Trump fans who are still unbelieving that this is as serious as it is – to ponder another question. What did Vladimir Putin want from this Russian meddling with American democracy? What is his game? Why did he authorize this? The Mueller indictment makes clear the Russians, perhaps with American assistance, committed a crime. They clearly had the means and opportunity, but what was the motive?

What Putin Wants….

Here are some educated guesses as to the “why” on the Russian side.

First, Putin, like all dictators, has one overriding objective: he wants to stay in power. One can imagine that he has loved the international attention lavished on the latest news of Russian cyber espionage designed to stir discord in the American body politic. The image provided by the revelations is one of power and that image fits like a glove with Putin’s overarching objective: be seen as powerful to stay in power.

Assets and liabilities

In a particularly perceptive piece in The Atlantic earlier this year, journalist Julia Ioffe recounted a fascinating story of how Putin has created the illusion of success – the U.S. hacking operation helps with this – out of the shambles that is the Russian economy and culture.

Ioffe wrote that, “A businessman who is high up in Putin’s United Russia party said over an espresso at a Moscow café: ‘You’re telling me that everything in Russia works as poorly as it does, except our hackers? Rosneft’—the state-owned oil giant—‘doesn’t work well. Our health-care system doesn’t work well. Our education system doesn’t work well. And here, all of a sudden, are our hackers, and they’re amazing?’”

Ioffe writes that many Russians think the political hacking effort was, at least initially, less a strategic operation than a spontaneous reaction to the release of the Panama Papers, the trove of secret banking information that detailed, among other things, how Putin and his cronies have become very rich while looting the Russian economy. And remember Putin is, if he’s anything, an opportunistic, improvisational former KGB spy.

It doesn’t take the imagination of John Le Carre to see that once Russian military intelligence hacked all that political information and the release of the information deepened divides in the Democratic Party, divides that Trump skillfully capitalized on, and the opportunistic improviser doubled down. Why not implicate the Trump campaign, his son and campaign manager, in the scheme?

After all, if the Kremlin really does have something incriminating on an American political candidate, that leverage is only useful if the compromised candidate actually wins. Therefore they had to do all they could to make sure he won.

And while we’re at it let’s change the Republican platform in a way that benefits Putin’s war in Ukraine. Let’s arrange back channels with Michael Flynn and others to influence American foreign policy even before Trump becomes president. Let’s push the envelope in Syria. And, of course, let’s deny it all and laugh at the silly Americans who think a bunch of Russians care enough to stir such a big pot.

Putin’s second objective – remember he is a Soviet era KGB operative – is the age old Russian goal of being taken seriously, to be a world power, to influence events. To him the glory days of his country were when Russia had an empire, a sphere of influence in eastern and southern Europe which insured any Russian leader was a man of worldwide importance and, above all, power.

How best to recreate the old Soviet Empire with its Marxist ideology replaced by oligarchy? How to do what Stalin and every successive Soviet and Russian leader failed to do – divide and conquer the democratic West? Annex Crimea. Destabilize Ukraine. Threaten the Baltic republics. All were once part of the empire and they can be again.

Putin’s tactics aimed at the western alliance were transparently obvious. Sow discord in Britain and weaken the European Union by messing with the Brexit referendum. The same types of anti-immigrant, pro-nationalist agenda that powered Trump to the White House works for the fringe of the political right in the UK, in France, in Austria, in Italy. Putin, often funding such movements, has fanned those flames.

He must be surprised at how completely this strategy has prevailed in the United States. A recent Pew study found that 25 percent of Republican voters now have a favorable opinion of Putin, up from just 11 percent in 2015. A political party that once defined itself by its full-throated support for NATO and its embrace of world trade, a party that would have relegated to the dustbin of history a preening, ignorant con man like its current leader now cheers his every move, including a private meeting with Putin.

Pause for a moment to consider the events of the past week. The president of the United States, having already imposed punitive tariffs on most of our most faithful allies, publicly insults the German chancellor, ironically for being a captive of Russia, a charge on its face that is ludicrous. That performance roils the NATO summit. Then he verbally assaults the British prime minister, rattling the oldest, most enduring American foreign policy relationship. Then on the domestic front twelve Russian spies are indicted for interference with an American election – the president says nothing at all about this development in his Twitter account and dismisses the seriousness in other comments. Meanwhile, he heads to Helsinki to meet with the man who benefits most by this chaos, this assault on the western alliance.

And what does Putin get? Precisely the optics he wants back home.

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the hall for a meeting with senior officers and prosecutors at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. (Kremlin Presidential Press Service/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

“The mere fact of the meeting, followed by a joint press conference with the American President, will be a demonstration of power for Putin,” writes Masha Gessen in The New Yorker. “He needs to deliver nothing else. If, however, he is also able to nudge Trump toward a verbal acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Russia’s interests in its old sphere of influence—something that Putin will almost certainly bring up in conversation, making Trump likely to parrot an attitude he instinctively understands—Russians will perceive it as Putin restoring Russia’s superpower status. Putin may also suggest a deal whereby the United States pulls out of Syria. Being able to make such an announcement would make Trump feel like the dealmaker he longs to be. To Russians, it would look like they had won the war. If any deal happens, though, it will be merely an accidental substantive bonus attached to a performance designed to be empty.”

Putin’s game is to preserve his power at home and extend it abroad. He controls, with the firmness of a secret police thug, all the Russian levers of power – the courts, the press, the economy. He is the master manipulator of Russian opinion. For most Russians the economy is a shambles and daily life a constant struggle, but Russian nationalism is a powerful thing. Putin is the symbol of that nationalism and he is poised, with the help of a profoundly flawed American president, to stand astride the globe as the powerful man of history he longs to be.

————

          “You know what? Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people.”

Donald Trump recently during a rally in Great Falls, Montana.

———–

How did we get here? Why have so many once wise Republican politicians, foreign policy experts and Russian skeptics allowed Donald Trump to let Vladimir Putin win? The mere fact that a Republican president and the party that now slavishly follows him have so warmly embraced such a thuggish dictator is Trump’s greatest con and Putin’s greatest win.

Russian strongmen once based foreign policy on the acquisition of “warm water ports” – the last Czar thought his spoils of the Great War would be control of Istanbul – but Putin has something even better now. He is enjoying the spectacle an increasing divided western alliance, relishing an American sponsored trade war that holds the potential to destabilize the western economy; he delights in the rise right wing populism in Europe and U.S., particularly including its racist, nationalist, press hating  authoritarian antecedents. And Putin has, perhaps most importantly, the luxury of having helped put in place a compliant, ignorant American president who revels in the kind of democracy busting behavior that Putin himself has mastered.

Churchill and Eisenhower in 1954

In 1954, Republican Dwight Eisenhower struggled mightily to dissuade British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from meeting with Russian leaders in the wake of Stalin’s death. Ike fearing a “propaganda feast” for the Russians at the expense of the western alliance.  “[We must] throw back the Russian threat and allow civilization, as we have known it, to continue its progress,” Eisenhower wrote Churchill. “Unless [we] are successful . . . there will be no history of any kind, as we know it. There will be only a concocted story made up by the Communist conquerors of the world.”

The Communists are gone, as are the Eisenhower Republicans. But the motives of Stalin and a succession of Russian dictators, the motives of Vladimir Putin, remain very much with us. It is a truly amazing turn in American politics that a Republican president and the Republican Party are enabling this history-bending occurrence.

Civil Liberties, History, Trump, World War II

And then it was too late…

“This is the United States of America. It isn’t Nazi Germany.”

                                  – Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), in an interview on MSNBC, about the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.

—————

The venerable Senator Feinstein is correct; we are not Nazi Germany – at least not yet.

But we are beginning, in some remarkably troubling ways, to resemble the ill-fated Weimar Republic that preceded Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. A chilling new book – The Death of Democracy – tells the story of how a cultured, sophisticated people – Weimar Germany was the land of Richard Strauss and Bertolt Brecht, the home to Nobel Prize winners – tumbled into deep political division and then widespread street violence and then a dictatorship and tragedy.

Historian Benjamin Carter Hett writes that the 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic “created a state-of-the-art modern democracy, with a scrupulously just proportional electoral system and protection of individual rights and freedoms.”

There is an authoritarian playbook

“If Germany had long prided itself on being the ‘land of poets and thinkers’ then in the 1920s it seemed to surpass even itself. And yet somehow, out of this enlightened, creative, ultramodern democracy, grew the most evil regime in human history.”

We still wonder how it happened and why.

Part of the answer, Hett writes, was a breakdown in what was regarded in Germany as acceptable political behavior. Brown shirted toughs took to the streets intimidating political opponents and “others” – Jews and Communists, in particular. German politics became deeply polarized, while nationalism and a national sense of grievance grew. Jews were scapegoated as part of a vast global conspiracy that was somehow tied to Communism.

Hett argues, compellingly and disturbingly, that the rise of the Nazis was in large part a response to globalization and economic change. Major Nazi political theorists actually adopted a policy of “autarky,” the notion that “a country can cut itself off completely from the world economy and rely on its own resources, no imports, no exports, or foreign investments.”

Proving the old saying that “the only thing new is the history we haven’t read” is this remarkable statement from Hitler in 1928. “The German people have no interest,” he wrote, in a “German financial group or a German shipyard establishing a so-called subsidiary shipyard in Shanghai to build ships for China with Chinese workers and foreign steel.” Such an arrangement would not benefit Germany since, Hitler said, jobs that should benefit Germany would not be created in Germany. As the historian Hett notes, “The political mobilization of the late 1920s, especially among those Protestant groups who would become the Nazi base, was mostly about Germany’s vulnerable position in the world economy and financial system.”

German President von Hindenburg with Hitler in 1933

When the German conservative establishment – business leaders, the military, Protestant evangelicals and importantly Great War hero Paul von Hindenburg – eventually turned to a bombastic Austrian veteran who preached a virulent form of nationalism heavily doused with racial animus – Jews were his “vermin” – Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor. His Nationalist Socialist Workers Party had never commanded more than about 30% of the popular vote before he reached the top of German politics.

“These conservatives could have stopped Hitler in his tracks,” Hett writes. “Instead, they chose to use him.” Business leaders liked his talk of an expanding German economy, higher tariffs and his plans to crack down on labor unions. Military leaders, smarting from how the Great War had ended, appreciated Hitler’s pledge to rebuild Germany’s armed forces. Evangelical Christians flocked to him because he seemed to promise that he would marginalize other Catholic backed political parties.

Within a matter of weeks after being appointed chancellor, Hitler, a brilliant communicator with a flair for the theatrical, had consolidated power to himself. The burning of the Reichstag – the German parliament building – four weeks after he took office was a galvanizing event, an excuse to create a police state. Hitler blamed the fire on Communist conspirators, almost certainly a lie, and historians still debate whether the Nazis staged the whole thing.

Without regard to facts, Nazi paramilitary brown shirts began locking up political opponents, silenced the independent press and deepened the Nazi party’s appeal to very conservative German farmers and small business people who craved stability.

The Reichstag burns in 1933 – the pretext for Hitler’s police state

“The key to understanding why many Germans supported him,” Hett writes, “lies in the Nazis’ rejection of a rational, factual world. Hitler himself, in the words of his biographer Joachim Fest, was ‘always thinking the unthinkable,’ and ‘in his statements an element of bitter refusal to submit to reality invariably emerged.’”

Hitler assumed dictatorial powers in Germany thanks to a series of lies, boasts, grand promises and raw appeals to emotion, racism, hatred and strength. Many Germans thought the strutting, one-time postcard painter with the pasty complexion simply wouldn’t last. But while he played his role Hitler could be a necessary evil – a tool – to crush the liberal left, the trade unions, intellectuals and elites. History is made of such horrible miscalculations.

There are, of course, no perfect historic analogies. Each generation stumbles ahead or falls behind on it’s own accord, but it is also true that history contains valuable lessons that we would be wise to heed. This is such a moment.

Dehumanizing…

When politicians say, as the American president did recently, that “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents.” We would be well advised to take them at face value. The American Constitution, of course, guarantees due process – to everyone regardless of legal status.

Dehumanizing your opponents is a tried and true tactic of authoritarians. When the president of the United States calls Hispanic or Latino human beings “animals” or “thugs” or “vermin” and refers to an African-American congresswoman as “an extraordinarily low IQ person” it is impossible to see such language as anything but dehumanizing.

By responding to the congresswoman’s incendiary and profoundly improper encouragement of harassment against Trump Administration officials with his own taunts – “be careful what you wish for” – the president doubles down on a politics of confrontation and demonization.

The United States, 1942

Former first lady Laura Bush explicitly compared the administration’s recent border separation strategy with the infamous “internment” of Japanese-Americans in 1942, one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in modern American history. The actor George Takei, who with his parents was interned in one of the camps, has written that two big lies, including the fiction that a law exists demanding the separations, have fueled the authoritarian border policy.

“The second lie is that those at our borders are criminals, and therefore deserve no rights. But the asylum-seekers at our borders are breaking no laws at all, nor are their children who accompany them. The broad brush of ‘criminal’ today raises echoes of the wartime ‘enemy’ to my ears. Once painted, both marks are impossible to wash off. Trump prepared his followers for this day long ago, when he began to dehumanize Mexican migrants as drug dealers, rapists, murderers, and animals. Animals might belong in cages. Humans don’t.”

As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum wrote last week: “It is worth noting how often the president repeatedly conflates refugees with illegal immigrants and MS-13 gang members. This is not an accident: He has targeted a group and given them characteristics — they are violent, they are rapists, they are gang members — that don’t belong to most of them. He then describes them with dehumanizing language. Democrats, he has tweeted, ‘want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13.’ The image of ‘infestation’ evokes, again, vermin and lice. A few weeks earlier, he spoke of MS-13 as ‘animals,’ once again making it unclear whether he meant actual gang members or simply those who distantly resemble them.”

Or as conservative columnist Michael Gerson wrote recently, “Dehumanization has a natural progression. It starts by defining a whole race or ethnicity by its worst members — say, rapists and other criminals. It moves on to enforce generally applicable laws and rules that especially hurt a target group. Then, as the public becomes desensitized, the group can be singled out for hatred and harm. It is the descent, step by step, into a moral abyss.”

Fearing Globalization…

When the president of the United States, against most credible advice and in the face of much history about how global trade works, imposes tariffs on imports from the nation’s closest allies and threatens retaliation against American companies it’s difficult not to conclude that he is playing on old fears about globalization.

Denigrating a Free Press…

When the president of the United States on a daily basis denigrates “the fake news” and criticizes news organizations and reporters by name it is impossible not to see parallels to the Nazi manifesto that declared that editors and contributors to newspapers “be people’s comrades” and that “newspapers which violate the general good are to be banned.”

The president has now actually uttered the words “enemy of the people,” a term Stalin often used, to label the press that routinely still calls out his lies and incompetence.

————-

            “One of the basic tools of fascism is the rigging of elections – we’ve seen that trialed in the election of Trump, in the Brexit referendum and (less successfully) in the French presidential elections. Another is the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities. Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed. That’s been tested out too. And fascism of course needs a propaganda machine so effective that it creates for its followers a universe of “alternative facts” impervious to unwanted realities. Again, the testing for this is very far advanced.”

Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times

————

Americans, long content to embrace our myth of “exceptionalism,” now are grouped with a growing list of nations around the world where democracy is in retreat. Yes, it is happening here. We are exceptional, but not in the way Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt envisioned.

A new report by European researchers contend that 2.5 billion people – a third of the world’s population – now live in countries where democracy is on the run. As the study indicates, “In recent years, the number of nations that are becoming more democratic has declined, while the number ‘registering significant change toward autocracy’ has increased. Even worse, ‘the population living in the 24 countries backsliding on liberal democracy”—a list that includes Russia, India, Brazil, and, yes, the United States—‘far outnumbers the population living in advancing countries.’”

“A much larger share of the world population is experiencing autocratization [than] democratization,” the researchers note. “This translates to a major reduction in the enjoyment of rights and freedoms.”

One can look back over the tumultuous last 18 months of American history in one of two ways.

One type of analysis would say: True enough, Donald J. Trump has upset a lot of traditions and norms in American politics. Other presidents have been liars, exaggerators, provocateurs who upset the status quo. We may not like all his language or emphasis, but the United States has been around a long time and navigated many challenging times. Trump has attacked judges and journalists, trashed Democrats and tarnished his GOP critics, but the system still works. We’ll be fine.

Another version of the same facts might well reach an altogether bleaker conclusion. The systematic dehumanizing of refugees and immigrants will last well beyond the current occupant of the White House. The disparagement of the independent press undermines, perhaps permanently, a vital check on misconduct and abuse of power. The criticism of judges, the claim that a special counsel investigation is “a witch hunt” and the suggestion that due process is an outdated concept are broadly damaging to the concept of the rule of law. The widespread abrogation by Congress of oversight of the executive branch – few oversight hearings, little if any complaint about manifest ethical transgressions and embracing policies and approaches Republicans would once have rejected totally – is an historic erosion of the time-tested systems of checks and balances. Nationalism, anti-globalism, trade wars, a growing cult of personality around Trump all show a clear and dramatic break with American values. This cannot end well.

Historian Benjamin Carter Hett notes several times in his profoundly important book about the fall of the Weimar Republic that most Germans in the 1920s and early 1930s really didn’t want violence in the streets, didn’t want to see the “liberal” values of an enlightened society crushed, but for most it was difficult to tell in real time how bad things were becoming. And then it was too late.

“Few Germans in 1933 could imagine Treblinka or Auschwitz, the mass shooting of Babi Yar or the death marches of the last month of the Second World War,” Hett says in summing up what happened. “It is hard to blame them for not foreseeing the unthinkable. Yet their innocence failed them, and they were catastrophically wrong about their future. We who come later have one advantage over them: we have their example before us.”

————

GOP, Trump

Democracy Dies Amid all the Lying…

“We are in a strange place. I mean, it’s almost, it’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it? And it’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cult-like situation as it relates to a president that happens to be of — purportedly, of the same party.”

— Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), quoted by The Hill.

—————-

Of all the astounding things that have happened since Donald J. Trump took office – the serial lying, the trade wars, the bizarre North Korean summit, the gruesome separation of asylum-seeking parents from their children at the U.S. border, the Scott Pruitt scandals, the indictments, the embrace of despots and the savaging of allies just to name a few – the most astounding thing is how easily Trump has co-opted an entire political party. There is simply no parallel in American history.

Trump salutes a North Korean general

Republicans, most quaking with political fear that crossing Trump or pushing back on his myriad outrages will get them the Jeff Flake treatment have, of course, only themselves to blame. They let an amoral, lying charlatan capture their party and imperil our democracy. Still, amid the craziness, it is an amazing thing to watch the destruction of the Republican Party in real time.

For years most Republicans have chosen to tolerate and then embrace the crazy La-La Land of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, conspiracy theories and systematic denial of obvious truths. Most of the Republican base finally came to embrace the racist notion that the 44thpresident of the United States is a foreign-born Muslim.

————

       “There is no seeming consequence to the president and lies. And if we accept that as a society, it is going to have incredibly harmful consequences in the way that we operate going forward, based on the construct of the Founding Fathers.”

Rep. Mark Sanford, defeated for re-election because he wasn’t Trumpian enough

————

The intellectual rot, as Steve Schmidt the GOP strategist calls it, is truly stunning. A tiny handful of principled conservatives – Schmidt, Charlie Skyes, Michael Gerson, Jonah Goldberg, David Frum and Bill Kristol most prominently – have called out this foolishness, but Republican intellectuals appealing for GOP sanity is a lost cause in the Age of Trump.

Steve Schmidt now says he is a non-practicing Republican and he wonders if the party, even after Trump, can ever find its way again. And Charlie Skyes, a conservative with a sense of gallows humor, titled his latest book How the Right Lost its Mind.

The answer to that question is simple: It all began with lying, half-truths, fabrications, blind anger and disdain for the arts of governing.

Romney was for it before he wasn’t…

Rather than offering serious alternatives Republicans chose to demonize Democratic efforts to address the health insurance crisis, turning tail on the very policies one-time GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney embraced as governor of Massachusetts. They spent decades bemoaning spending and debt then passed a massive tax cut for the most well off Americans arguing that their policies won’t balloon the debt and actually help the middle class. The truth is precisely the opposite.

Republicans have doubled down on climate change denial by putting a corrupt grifter in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. They savaged, then abandoned an international agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and now hold their breath hoping to get an agreement as tenth as good with North Korea.

The Republican base now thinks better of a murderous North Korean dictator than of Nancy Pelosi. Let that sink in. And Trump’s efforts to destroy generations of foreign policy consensus regarding NATO, the G7, etc., while celebrating dictators from Moscow to Pyongyang will have lasting impact.

A Republican Party of Ronald Reagan that once celebrated world leadership now celebrates a guy who is on his third national security advisor, his second secretary of state and insists on “happy talk” intelligence briefings because he won’t read his homework. One former senior intelligence officer told the Washington Post that “Russia-related intelligence that might draw Trump’s ire is in some cases included only in the written assessment and not raised orally.”

He barely listens, and won’t read.

In the GOP’s La-La Land one-time critics in the Congress are cowed and running scared. Even worse are the true believers, people like Idaho’s Jim Risch who would have levitated over the Capitol had Barack Obama taken a meeting with the North Korean dictator, handed over concessions and gotten nothing at all in return save a photo op.

Risch, who regularly brags of his many conversations with Trump, dismisses any concern about the president as being the product of “tremendous hate and vitriol against President Trump from the other side in this town.” This isn’t your father’s GOP. It is a cult of personality built on lies, unethical misbehavior, craven love of power and – did I mention – lies?

Lindsey Graham, once verbally assaulted by Trump as a lightweight, now Tweets birthday wishes to the president who called the murderous North Korean dictator “a funny guy” who he trusts. The GOP intellectual rot begins in such fevered brains.

“I trust the president,” Senator Graham told CNN. “I like the president. I trust him in terms of trying to do things that are big and matter. Here’s what I’ve got. I’ve got a relationship with the president at a time when I think he needs allies.”

Republicans steadfastly refuse to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act, while putting a white supremacist in charge of the Justice Department. Meanwhile, at the state level the GOP perfected the ancient art of gerrymandering allowing most House Republicans to pick their voters instead of the other way around and in the process making voting much more difficult for millions of Americans.

Needing an issue to enflame the nativist base of the party they now own an immoral, barbaric, un-American policy that separates kids from parents seeking asylum in the land built by immigrants.

Fearing – and likely knowing – that Trump is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg they trash the American justice system and consider the Republican special counsel investigating Russian interference in our politics as some dark “deep state” conspirator.

To repeat for emphasis Robert Mueller is a registered Republican, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and a man of sterling personal qualities and professional ethics. The president of the United States repeatedly labels his work “a witch hunt” and guys like Graham and Risch smile and pray not to get a primary challenge.

Reaping the Whirlwind…

Republicans officeholders have been working on handing the country over to Donald Trump for a generation. They have valued power over principle, polarization over policy. They have been lying to their base for so long that, not surprisingly, people started believing the craziness. Now Trump owns them. They are afraid of losing an election or slipping out of power and they have fully acquiesced to his lies, his personal and moral dishonesty, his dangerous and deranged foreign policy, his racism and, most troubling, his ever more obvious authoritarian ambitions.

Last week Trump told Fox & Friends, the nut job echo chamber that feeds his gargantuan ego, that his new North Korean friend is “the head of a country — and I mean he’s the strong head. He speaks and his people sit up in attention. I want my people to do the same.” Later Trump said it was just a “joke,” but that same “joke” has been used in the past to discount the kind of language that authoritarians regularly use.

The nut job echo chamber…

The journalist Andrew Sullivan says Trump is “openly living in his own disturbed world” where whatever he says is true and whatever contradicts his truth is “fake news.” And the Republican Party, witness the comment from the party chairwoman, has accepted this new reality.

“Anyone that does not embrace the Donald Trump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake,” says Ronna McDaniel. By the way, Ms. McDaniel for a long time used her maiden name – Romney – until Trump said he didn’t like it – she’s Mitt Romney’s niece – so she quit and now has a name approved by the Great Leader.

“The party of free trade has gone protectionist,” writes Edward-Isaac Dovere in Politico. “The party of spreading freedom and never negotiating with dictators is now full of praise for chumming it up with Kim Jong-un. The party of fighting deficits has blown a trillion dollar hole in the budget. Family values and moralizing have been replaced by porn stars and Twitter tantrums. Trump goes to war with the G-7, and the sum of the Republican reaction is a statement from John McCain and a few comments on Sunday TV from Maine Sen. Susan Collins.”

Democracy Dies With Lies…

Democracy Dies in Darkness is the new motto of the Washington Post, a newspaper that daily tries to sort out the various strains of wretched weirdness that is the Republican Party, but the newspaper motto gets at only part of our problem. Democracy actually dies when lies dominate the daily political discussion, when ethics get ignored and when principle has no place.

There is an authoritarian playbook

I’m reading a new book on an old story, how the Weimar Republic in Germany collapsed amid the lies and nationalism and racial hatred that ushered in the darkest period in modern history.

Historian Benjamin Carter Hett writes that a crazed Austrian postcard painter figured out the essential truth of the authoritarian long before we got Donald Trump.

“To sink into the minds of average people,” Hett writes, “a message [or a lie] had to be simple. It had to be emotional – hatred worked well – not intellectual. And it had to be endlessly repeated.”

No Collusion

Crooked Hillary

Witch Hunt 

Fake News 

There is an authoritarian playbook, well worn and often remarkably successful. The would be authoritarian lies about everything to the point that enough people no longer care about the truth. A free press is put to the torch. Convenient enemies – immigrants, Muslims, any opponent of the leader – are daily attacked. The rule of law is subverted. Financial and ethical norms are ignored.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote recently: “Every time Trump extends his ludicrous, ridiculous, and insulting reality show for another season, and every time the Republican Party echoes every delusion within it, there’s a big temptation to give in, give up, or look away. A numbness soon takes over. So many of my friends are turning off and tuning out, their decency reflexes exhausted with the pace of the indecency.”

This is where we are, fellow Americans.

Captured by an unhinged, lying, racist president enabled by a minority of the country thrashing about in a fever swamp of nationalism and rage, while elected members of a political party fearful of their leader, goes along to get along. What’s a little lying compared to a Supreme Court packed for a generation? Personal corruption – no big deal we got the tax cut. A deeply flawed psychopath in the White House, sure but he’s our psychopath

It’s the lies, my friends, it’s the lies. The postcard painter knew the path to power. Lie bigly. Lie always. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie to demonize the other side. Lie to discredit the press. Lie to protect your privilege. Lie often enough, loudly enough and pretty soon no one knows what to believe and the authoritarian has his day. It has happened before. It is happening again.

More on The Death of Democracy next time.

American Presidents, Books, Trump

Democracy Dies In Broad Daylight . . .

I love Jeff Bezos for what he’s done for the Washington Post, but their headline on top of the paper, the motto, ‘democracy dies in darkness’ — no, democracy dies in broad daylight. Again and again, it’s the lesson in history. You retain the appearance of democracy without having it. I think that’s where this country is right now.”

Journalist/historian Tom Ricks

—————

The journalist and biographer Jon Meacham has a new book – The Soul of America – that makes the case that as bad as things now seem for American democracy that things have actually been much worse at points in our checkered past.

 “Let’s learn the lessons of the past,” Meacham says. “Resist tribalism, deploy reason and remember that fair play for others is the best way to ensure fair play for you. If we can do that, then we’ll rise above the corrosive tweets, the presidential bullying and the narcissism of our reality-TV president,” he says. “It feels dark and insuperable, but it’s felt that way before.”

Agreed. We did have a Civil War. That was pretty awful. Before that war human bondage as a political issue ripped the country apart and even when slavery ended after the slaughter of more than 700,000 Americans it took another hundred years to legislatively guarantee voting rights for citizens of color. (Of course, the Supreme Court threw out the most important parts of the Voting Rights Act a while back, but keep the faith we’re still working the problem, sort of.)

The McCarthy Era was bad news. A demagogue paralyzed the United State Senate, gained a legion of followers and destroyed countless lives. Joe McCarthy eventually drank himself to death eliminating the need for his ultimate repudiation at the ballot box and the Senate did censure him, but not before he poisoned American politics for generations.

Vietnam. Bloody battles over Civil Rights. The Klan. Assassinations. An ever-expanding interpretation of the Second Amendment. (Where do you sign up to be part of that “well-regulated militia,” by the way?) Endless war in places we don’t understand and couldn’t impact if we did.

American strife and division, particularly the poisonous variety, as Jon Meacham says, “are in some ways the rule in American life rather than the exception.”

Fair enough, but, but … we have never before had a Donald J. Trump.

Richard Nixon . . .

Richard Nixon was mean, vindictive and despite his statement to the contrary a crook, it least in the political sense. Harding surrounded himself with a loathsome collection of grifters and political hacks. Bill Clinton did have sex with that woman and history has not been kind to a clueless James Buchanan or a bumbling Franklin Pierce. Yet, none have done what Trump, the ignorant, arrogant, self-obsessed, serial lying, three-times married, hush money porno star paying faux billionaire has done.

The Trump coup d’etat . . . 

As Rebecca Solnit wrote recently – read her stuff in Harper’s and elsewhere – Trump has effectively staged a coup: “It happened on November 8, 2016, when an unqualified candidate won a minority victory in a corrupted election thanks in part to foreign intervention … The evidence that the candidate and his goons were aided by and enthusiastically collaborating with a foreign power was pretty clear before that election, and at this point, they are so entangled there isn’t really a reason to regard the born-again alt-right Republican Party and the Putin Regime as separate entities.”

Consider just a few bits of news from the past few days.

The president of the United States has done publicly what Nixon only did in the privacy of the Oval Office, namely attempt to discredit a legitimate investigation into his own conduct. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein may have temporarily defused the crisis  by referring the matter to the department’s Inspector General. Still make no mistake this is a very, very, very big departure from previous presidential behavior. Trump’s coup has now made such unprecedented action – certainly unprecedented post-Nixon – standard operating procedure in the White House.

As Jonathan Bernstein wrote in Bloomberg: “Once upon a time, President Richard Nixon turned the Department of Justice into his personal flunkies in various different conspiracies to break the law. Before it was over, his first two attorneys general wound up in legal trouble. A third attorney general and his deputy resigned rather than carry out the further demands of the president.” We may still be in the early days of Trump’s attempts to manipulate and rig his own Justice Department and rip to shreds the notion of “the rule of law,” but it is increasingly clear we are in very deep and unchartered waters.

And then there is Trump’s attempt to pressure the Post Office to retaliate against Amazon and its billionaire owner Jeff Bezos. Bezos, of course, also owns the Washington Post, one of the news organizations attempting to keep alive the flame of presidential accountability.

“[Postmaster General Megan] Brennan [a career official who worked her way up from letter carrier to boss] has so far resisted Trump’s demand, explaining in multiple conversations occurring this year and last that these arrangements are bound by contracts and must be reviewed by a regulatory commission,” the Post reported recently. “She has told the president that the Amazon relationship is beneficial for the Postal Service and gave him a set of slides that showed the variety of companies, in addition to Amazon, that also partner for deliveries.”

Other presidents have certainly attempted to intimidate various businesses for various reasons, but Trump’s action is in a new category. His behavior is the conduct of a man who relentlessly seeks to punish his perceived political enemies and he’s proving he will pull whatever handy levers he stumbles on to inflict the punishment. This is not politics or ideology, but rather rank authoritarianism on an American scale.

It’s the corruption – stupid . . . 

Or consider this lede on a recent New York Times (non-fake) story: “HONG KONG — The Trump Organization’s partner in a lavish Indonesian development project boasting a six-star hotel and golf course with President Trump’s name has brought on a new ally: a Chinese state-owned company.

“The Indonesian partner, the MNC Group, said Tuesday that it had struck a deal with an arm of Metallurgical Corporation of China, a state-owned construction company, to build a theme park next door to the planned Trump properties.”

The Times concluded, “The timing is awkward.” We should hope to shout it is awkward.

After promising a trade war with China and after the Indonesian hotel deal, Trump suddenly abandoned sanctions against Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE, an organization American intelligence officials says is in the middle of Chinese efforts to evade Iranian and North Korean sanctions. Additionally the director of the FBI told the Senate Intelligence Agency as recently as February that he was “deeply concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks.” Top intelligence officials have bluntly told Americans not to use ZTE phones and devices because they constitute an espionage threat.

Perhaps there is a rational explanation for all this, but it would seem the best that could be said for a president making money off a foreign business deal financed by a Chinese company while engaged in trade negotiations with China is, well, “awkward.”

There are new and credible allegations of additional pro-Trump election meddling. The latest involves deep-pocketed Persian Gulf operatives in a second campaign season Trump Tower meeting involving the president’s son Don, Jr. and various foreign agents, one of whom apparently has lied to Congress about his involvement in the campaign. It is worth remembering that it is against the law for foreign citizens, agents, and companies to in any way involve themselves in a U.S. election or to spend money to support or defeat a candidate. Democracy dies in plain sight.

And there is always more with this crowd.

Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family real estate business has apparently entertained offers for a troubled New York building – 666 Fifth Avenue – from an investment group backed by money from Qatar. The Kushner deal, and of course he’s a top White House advisor, somehow is also caught up in an ongoing diplomatic Middle Eastern brouhaha that Vanity Fair described this way:

Jared Kushner – son-in-law, White House aide, real estate investor, problem

“Led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a group of Middle Eastern countries, with Kushner’s backing, led a diplomatic assault that culminated in a blockade of Qatar. Kushner, according to reports at the time, subsequently undermined efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to bring an end to the standoff.”

I know it’s complicated keeping the conflicts of interest and the world-class grifting all straight, but this is way beyond “awkward” and into the territory of bribery and shakedown. I’ll put it the way special counsel Robert Mueller likely would: Did Kushner pressure Qatar for money for his New York building in exchange for backing off on the blockade?

Or as Slate succinctly put it: “Bribery, corruption, and real estate have always gone hand in hand. If I give you a suitcase containing $500,000 in cash, that’s extremely suspicious. But if I buy a property from you for $1.6 million, it’s almost impossible to determine that the ‘real’ value was only $1.1 million and that therefore $500,000 of the payment was somehow nefarious.”

That we are even considering this kind of thing in relation to the president and his “staff” is an astounding moment in American history.

Whenever there is a choice . . . 

Back in 2008 the writer Thomas Frank produced a splendid little book entitled The Wrecking Crew. His basic assertion was that the modern conservative-liberal political debate can now best be explained by the fact that liberals actually continue to believe in government as a force for good and a route to improvement in the human condition, while conservatives are essentially cynics about government. Conservatives not only don’t want much government they want to privatize what little they tolerate. In the process they elevate “bullies and gangsters and CEOs over other humans” – sound familiar – while telling us to get smart and stop expecting anything good from Washington.

“Whenever there is a choice to be made,” Frank wrote back in those pre-Donald Trump days, “between markets and free people – between money and the common good – the conservatives chose money.”

The modern Republican Party, now completely the party of Trump, is daily proving the essential truth of Thomas Frank’s little book.

“I worry that we no longer live in a democracy,” the journalist and historian Tom Ricks said recently. “We live in what the ancient Greeks called an oligarchy — government of the rich, for the rich, by the rich. Money now is much more important in America than people’s votes.”

Scandals 100th the size those that swirl daily around the White House would have in years past set off a mad race to investigate and hold accountable the wrong-doers. What we have instead is an incredibly tepid response from Republican politicians afraid that raising legitimate questions about the president’s conduct will induce blowback from residents of the Fox News fueled fever swamp that is the Republican “base.”

Republican candidates for an open Congressional seat in Idaho all dodged a debate question about whether there was anything Trump has done that caused them heartburn. The joker who won the primary and likely will go to Congress said he hadn’t been following the special counsel investigation deeming it a “distraction.” Democracy dies in broad daylight.

Conservative never-Trumper Max Boot ended a recent column by saying, “Republicans approve of, or pretend not to notice, his flagrant misconduct, while Democrats are inured to it. The sheer number of outrages makes it hard to give each one the attention it deserves. But we must never – ever! – accept the unacceptable.”

Yet, so much damage has been done amid so little pushback from the conservatives who certainly know Trump is a disaster, but cannot bring themselves to speak of the destruction he has created. And the damage is huge and will be long lasting.

The whole world is watching . . .

“The West as we once knew it no longer exists,” the German magazine Der Spiegel said recently in an remarkable editorial. “Our relationship to the United States cannot currently be called a friendship and can hardly be referred to as a partnership. President Trump has adopted a tone that ignores 70 years of trust. He wants punitive tariffs and demands obedience. It is no longer a question as to whether Germany and Europe will take part in foreign military interventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is now about whether trans-Atlantic cooperation on economic, foreign and security policy even exists anymore. The answer: No. It is impossible to overstate what Trump has dismantled in the last 16 months.”

With due respect to Jon Meacham and the “we’ve had it worse” argument, the Republican Party embrace of Trump is not like anything we have ever seen. The embrace of his incompetence and corruption when coupled with a near complete political unwillingness to restrain his attacks on institutions, the law, old alliances and fundamental decency is absolutely frightening.

We retain the appearance of democracy without having it. You have to wonder if we can ever get it back.