2020 Election, Education, Pandemic, Trump

Magical Thinking…

Yeah, the schools should be opened. Schools should be opened. Kids want to go to school. You’re losing a lot of lives by keeping things closed.” 

Donald Trump, July 13, 2020

———- 

For decades Republicans have preached the gospel of “local control” of schools; the idea that the local school board – the homemakers, the local real estate guy, the small business owner – are the people who should have ultimate say about educating our kids. But like almost every other conviction of bedrock conservatism “local control” is no longer, to borrow a word from the Nixon era, operative. 

You know what else is inoperative: competence. Donald Trump and the collection of inept D-list flunkies that surround the president – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos comes to mind – have spent the last three weeks threatening governors, teachers, parents and common sense. Trump even said he’d withhold money from states refusing to open schools, a hollow threat he cannot possibly fulfil, but one in keeping with this administration’s mendacity. Significant amounts of federal education aide go to the poorest schools and to help children with particular learning needs. 

Trump wants the schools open, many others aren’t convinced

The bullying and demanding from Washington, D.C. isn’t based on any serious concern about how schools might operate in the midst of a still accelerating pandemic, but it is based on Trump’s need to manufacture the optics of “a return to normal” that is only happening between the ears of the “very stable genius.” 

As columnist Rex Huppke put it in the Chicago Tribune: “You brats are going to listen to me and to your president, Donald J. Trump, and you’re going to march your little rear ends off to school come fall. I don’t care if you have to wade through 5 feet of coronavirus to get there, you’re going!” 

Yet the people most affected – parents, teachers, school cafeteria staff, among others – seem impervious to this Trumpian logic. “I have yet to see any data where there are appreciable numbers of people who say, ‘Yes, I want my kids back in school,’” says Glen Bolger, a veteran Republican pollster, in an interview with the New York Times. “They want their kids back in school, but not right now. I think safety is taking priority over education.”

Or as Kristi Wilson, the superintendent of a small district in Arizona told the Washington Post: “Although the administration can apparently absorb the 150,000 COVID deaths without care or consequence, we do not have the luxury of even losing one.” 

It might have been wise to devote the last couple of months to strengthening distance learning and helping parents prepare for a school year without kids in school buildings. What we got instead is the persistent incompetence and quackery of the Trump Administration and the frightened conservative politicians who dare not offend the man who acts like he has all the answers but possesses none of them. 

While the president lamented Dr. Anthony Fauci’s high poll numbers compared to his – “but nobody likes me,” Trump whined, while wondering if it had something to do with his personality – he again touted hydroxychloroquine, the drug the FDA says has no proven effectiveness against the coronavirus. We won’t go into the quack doctor Trump citing who “made videos saying that doctors make medicine using DNA from aliens and that they’re trying to create a vaccine to make you immune from becoming religious.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci back in the old days when Donald Trump let him speak from the White House

Trump era magical thinking has positioned the United States, with only five percent of the world’s population, but with a quarter of all the world’s cases and vastly more deaths than any other country, as a case study of failure when it comes to controlling the virus. 

The squandering of precious time from late March to mid-May when organization of a national strategy to test, trace and isolate cases could have been done, but wasn’t will be this administration’s deadly legacy. The spreading of quack theories about unproven drugs and phony treatment, while making wearing a mask an ideological litmus test is the final proof of the abject failure of Republican efforts to lead and govern. 

U.S. leading the world in COVID-19 deaths and failed response

The GOP has given up on fighting the illness. It’s just too hard for them to handle, a position Idaho governor Brad Little summed up perfectly last week when he was asked if his state’s schools would reopen. “I think the answer is, it depends,” Little said. 

The governor or his counterparts in Florida or Texas or Arizona might have said: “You know, the answer for very much schools is no. We must recognize that the disease is out of control, spreading uncontrollably and we must redouble our efforts to fight it. One step is to end the magical thinking that suggest we should put teachers and children and the grandparents of school children at real risk by too quickly going back to in person schooling. We have more work to do before we can do that.”

Something like that would have been an honest and indeed helpful answer, allowing parents and teachers to plan and prepare, but instead of the functional equivalent of “we will fight on the beaches…we shall never surrender” to the virus we get “it depends.” 

“This collapse of a major political party as a moral governing force is unlike anything we have seen in modern American politics,” long-time Republican consultant Stuart Stevens wrote recently. He compared the collapse of the party, its abandonment of expertise and common sense and its embrace of a reality television star, to the demise of the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union. In short, what the party says it is bears no resemblance to what is actually is. 

The disconnect between what Republican leaders tell their constituents about issues like wearing a mask and opening school and the relentless, unbending reality of the pandemic is simply not sustainable. The terrible logic of the virus is going to win every time and the way the incompetents continue to handle it signals that we are on track to never put it behind us. 

Ask yourself this logical question: If, as a result of a still little understood disease that will almost certainly claim thousands more American lives between now and Labor Day, your local school board, your health district, your state board of education is reduced to meeting by Zoom to consider reopening the schools is it really such a great idea to reopen the schools?

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Nespresso…

Great deep dive in The Guardian on the coffee machine and the company behind it.

“Buying a machine grants you membership of the Nespresso Club, literally, and also membership of the Nespresso club, metaphorically – a global fellowship of people who care enough about their morning brew to spend 40 or 50p on 5 grams of it, but not enough to spend more than 30 seconds preparing it. In their homes, the distinctive hum, whirr and clunk of a machine in action has taken its place alongside the churn of a dishwasher.”

Read the whole thing, including a few surprises.


How to think about Jefferson… 

Thomas Jefferson, third president, eternally complicated…and controversial

Alan Taylor is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who teaches at the University of Virginia, the university Thomas Jefferson created. In a recent essay he reflected on the contradictions of the author of the Declaration of Independence, a slave owner who declared all men are created equal. 

“As Hollywood has long known,” Taylor writes, “Americans prefer melodramas that sort people into the good and the evil. So, we treat Jefferson as an icon of our unresolved prejudices and inequalities, which trace to slavery. As that burden becomes conspicuous in our national understanding, partisans wish to cast Jefferson as either an antislavery hero or a proslavery villain. In fact, he was both and neither.”

Your history read today.


Nicholas Baker on FOIA…

Baker is a great writer and a dogged researcher. In his new book Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act Baker tries to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to dig into some mysteries. He writes:

“Isn’t it against the law for government agencies to delay their responses to FOIA requests? Yes, it is: the mandated response time in the law is twenty days, not including Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, and if one agency must consult with another agency before releasing a given document, the consultation must happen ‘with all practicable speed.’ And yet there is no speed. There is, on the contrary, a deliberate Pleistocenian ponderousness.”

A fascinating story.


Thanks for reading. Stay well.

2020 Election, Trump

Corruption…

“Unprecedented, historic corruption,” says Utah Senator Mitt Romney, one of the last Republicans with a moral compass. Romney was objecting to “an American president commut[ing] the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president.”

It was just a week ago – a lifetime in American politics – that Donald Trump commuted the sentence of convicted felon Roger Stone, his long-time associate and the man who conspired with Wikileaks to release hacked emails intended to damage the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. 

Considering the entirety of the craven, corrupt, contemptable 42-month Trump presidency, the Stone commutation is clearly the single most obvious – and despicable – Trumpian abuse of presidential power, at least that we know of. History is sure to record it as the most corrupt act by any president, Richard Nixon included

Stone commutation: Rank corruption

Curious thing: we knew all along that Trump would engage in this corruption in plain sight. He long ago signaled to Stone that if the self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” kept his mouth shut about what he knows, Trump would keep him out of jail. 

“But the predictable nature of Trump’s action should not obscure its rank corruption,” as Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes wrote at the Lawfare website. “In fact, the predictability makes the commutation all the more corrupt, the capstone of an all-but-open attempt on the president’s part to obstruct justice in a self-protective fashion over a protracted period of time. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s actually not. Trump publicly encouraged Stone not to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation, he publicly dangled clemency as a reward for silence, and he has now delivered. The act is predictable precisely because the corrupt action is so naked.”

Or as former federal prosecutor Joyce Vance White wrote in USA Today, putting a fine point on Trump’s corruption: “Roger Stone knows too much for Donald Trump to permit him to spend a single night in prison. Stone has always known that. The final piece of evidence Mueller didn’t have, but that the American people now possess — Trump provided it himself when he commuted Stone’s sentence.” 

Let’s recap, since it seems like a decade ago that special counsel Robert Mueller, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and former FBI director, issued his report about Russian interference in the last presidential election. Beyond a shadow of a doubt Mueller established that Russian military intelligence officers hacked Hillary Clinton’s email, as well as others at the Democratic National Committee. (It was Watergate just without the five clumsy burglars who were caught in the act in 1972.) The Russian behavior was also confirmed by the nation’s intelligence agencies and congressional committees. 

Cover of the Mueller report

In turn Mueller gained indictments against 13 Russians and three different Russian organizations. But, of course, Vladimir Putin, protected at every turn by an American president, even when he’s placing bounties on our soldiers in Afghanistan, would never let his agents be extradited so Mueller needed Americans involved in the plot to reveal what they know. Stone refused to cooperate, then lied to Congress, while one-time Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, hoping for his own pardon, also kept quiet. Trump, too, refused to cooperate with Mueller beyond limited written answers that prominently featured phrases like “I don’t recall.” 

Numerous commentators, including George Will, about as far from a liberal as one can find, have equated this corrupt farce to the behavior of a mob boss and his underlings. Yet, a Tony Soprano or Michael Coreleone seem almost professional compared to Stone and Manafort, “dregs from the bottom of the Republican barrel” in the words of Will. 

But, a week on from the late Friday night when we learned about this “unprecedented, historic corruption,” Trump’s corrupted Republican Party is moving on, willing once again in silence to embrace ethical depravity merely to serve the amoral conman in the White House. 

Imagine the mental jujitsu necessary for a Republican like Texas senator John Cornyn, a former state attorney general, to look the other way at such corruption. Think about the kind of political Kool-Aid is a guy like Idaho’s Jim Risch is drinking – he never speaks, after all, without reminding us that he was once a prosecutor – in order to stomach the Stone fiasco? 

“There has never been a case of a president buying silence about his own misdeeds with executive clemency,” Tom Nichols, the Never Trump conservative told Politico. “Other presidents have made bad and even corrupt calls with pardons, but this is in a class by itself, which is why the Republicans are either staying quiet or trying to play the ‘whataboutism’ game.”

But the old Republican game of covering for Trump is growing tiresome and increasingly ineffective. Trumpian incompetence, with the country closing in on 140,000 COVID-19 deaths and the administration’s response reduced to trashing Dr. Anthony Fauci, isn’t going to get the economy back in operation or the kids back in school. 

Trumpian corruption – commuting Stone’s felony sentence for lying, while hounding out of the military Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman who risked his career for telling the truth – represents the perfect bookends for this collection of ethically devoid Republican political cowards. The stink extends from Maine to Idaho.

Roger Stone has been a political bottom feeder since he helped found the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) in the 1970s, the group that stormed into Idaho in 1979 to smear the record and reputation of Senator Frank Church. Once a sleaze, always a sleaze. That’s Roger Stone. He’ll go to his just rewards branded a convicted felon who lied and schemed to protect the man who has burned down the Republican Party. He’ll be remembered as a crook just like the Republicans who countenance him and the man he’s protecting. 

In a few months’ time Republicans like Cornyn, Risch, Mike Crapo, and a hundred others, will be trying to convince us they hardly knew Donald Trump. They’ll hope their 42 months of silence will cover their complicit tracks. It won’t work. They’re dirty, too, just like their leader, their careers stunted and warped by their gutlessness in the face of all this corruption and incompetence. 

All that’s left is to ask them not just how could you live with such deceit and decay, but how can you live with yourself? 

—–0——

Additional Reading:

A View of the U.S. from Australia

A friend and regular reader sent me this piece from The Canberra Times, the paper is Australia’s capitol city. It’s a stark reminder of how we are now seen in much of the rest of the world.

“The underlying weakness in present US democracy is that partisanship has become so extreme that the nation is incapable of dealing with the major issues that face it. COVID-19 has illustrated that starkly, with every word and act predicated on party allegiance. Meanwhile, other problems like race, police violence, gun control, inequality, the health system, climate change and energy policy go unattended.” 

Read the whole thing


Notre Dame 

Notre Dame under restoration

French president Manuel Macron has backtracked on a proposal to give the historic restored cathedral in the heart of Paris a modern spire. As Architectural Digest reported: 

“‘The president of the republic has become convinced of the need to restore Notre-Dame de Paris in the most consistent manner possible to its last complete, coherent, and known state,’ the Elysée Palace said in a statement. In other words, the ‘redesign’ will look exactly the same as the original Gothic design, which is what many senior figures in French government were publicly pushing for.”

Well…good. Somethings really are perfect just as they are. Read the story


Truman and 1948 

This looks like a must read if you enjoy political history. A. J. Baime is the author of Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America’s Soul.

“The Truman campaign began in earnest with a meeting on the night of July 22, at 8 pm, in the State Dining Room of the White House. Funneling in was a motley crew of Truman friends—hardly a big hitter among them. As the former secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes described this bunch: ‘The political figures who surround the President . . . could all be blown out by  one sure breath, as are candles on a birthday cake.’”

LitHub has an excerpt of the new book.

Thanks for reading. All the best.

2020 Election, Trump

George Wallace and Donald Trump…

Back in 1968, that awful year of assassinations, racial unrest, campus upheaval, war and political demagoguery – a year the writer Mark Kurlansky has said where “ideologies were seldom clear, and there was widespread agreement on very few things” – a diminutive racist from Alabama was at the height of his powers. 

George Corley Wallace was certainly not the first American politician to mobilize white grievance, but until the arrival on the scene of the current occupant of the Oval Office the Alabama governor did more than anyone else to perfect the politics of fear and division. 

George C. Wallace is shown in this Oct. 19, 1964 photo speaking in Glen Burnie, Md. at a rally supporting Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater. (AP Photo)

It was no accident the historian Dan T. Carter entitled his brilliant biography of Wallace The Politics of RageWallace, who ran for president four different times, was, Carter wrote, “the alchemist of a new social conservatism as he compounded racial fear…[and] cultural nostalgia.” 

When Wallace made his most aggressive presidential run in 1968 at the head of his short-lived American Independence Party, he won the electoral votes of five deep south states. Wallace’s campaign of fear and racial division prompted no less a political strategist than Richard Nixon to later admit that he carefully calibrated his own positions in order to head off Wallace’s appeal to white voters. It worked. 

Wallace’s appeal to white grievance helped birth the Republican “southern strategy” that has been at the heart of the party’s White House calculus ever since. Nixon won every state of the old Confederacy that Wallace failed to carry in 1968 with the exception of Texas, which he only narrowly lost to Hubert Humphrey. 

If Nixon’s long-ago appeal for “law and order” in service of “the silent majority” sounds familiar that’s because it is, updated now and applied to a cratering Trump re-election effort. But Trump is borrowing less from Nixon’s thinly veiled appeal to white grievance than he is appropriating the racist language of George Wallace

Nixon: Law and Order

Where Wallace said of civil rights and anti-war protesters “the people know the way to stop a riot is to hit someone on the head,” Trump tells police to “not be too nice” and demands that the nation’s governors “have to dominate or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks, you have to arrest and try people.” 

Wallace repeatedly made snarling attacks on street protesters who he claimed, “turned to rape and murder,” while Trump fumes about “Mexican rapists” and immigrants who “aren’t people,” but “animals.”

Trump’s re-election message can’t focus on the economy. It’s in shambles. His handling of the global pandemic, with the U.S. leading the world in death and disease, is a national tragedy and an international embarrassment. In three states – Florida, Arizona and South Carolina – new coronavirus cases are growing faster than in any country in the world. 

There has never been much of a Trump policy agenda and there is even less of one now. All he has is resentment and race. How else to explain the presidential attack on the only Black NASCAR driver or the defense of the Confederate flag and monuments that recall our deeply racist past.

“It’s not about who is the object of the derision or the vitriol,” Eddie Glaude, the chair of the Department of African American studies at Princeton University, told the Associated Press. “The actual issue is understanding the appeal to white resentment and white fear. It’s all rooted in this panic about the place of white people in this new America.”

As outrageous as Trump’s rhetoric has become you can bet it will get worse as the election slips toward an anti-Trump landslide. It is beyond Trump’s ability to give the country what it longs for: a common purpose. 

Imagine had Trump tried to unite the nation behind the shared mission of defeating the pandemic? But he can’t do it.  

“If he could change, he would,” says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. And even when, as Jillson says, the message of fear and racial animosity is “not helping him now. It’s just nonstop. It is habitual and incurable. He is who he is.”

And like ol’ George Wallace more than 50 years ago Trump always digs deeper even as the hole consumes him. In his authoritative history of the 1968 campaign, journalist Michael A. Cohen writes that “Wallace deliberately sought to ratchet up intense, racist emotions at his campaign events” where violence was not uncommon. Cohen quotes a Wallace aide as saying it was all calculated to be “purposely…inflammatory” in order to draw attention and demand press coverage. Cue Fox News. 

Still there are many signs that the old Trump reality show – fear and loathing on the campaign trial – just isn’t working. As Jonathan Lemire and Calvin Woodward of the Associated Press wrote after Trump’s hyperbolic Mt. Rushmore speech: “These are times of pain, mass death, fear and deprivation and the Trump show may be losing its allure, exposing the empty space once filled by the empathy and seriousness of presidents leading in a crisis.

“Bluster isn’t beating the virus; belligerence isn’t calming a restive nation.”

Trump has declared himself “the president of law and order…”

You can hear restive Republicans taking the first tentative steps to distance themselves from the coming disaster. There was panic in the air when five GOP senators announced this week they’ll stay away from the Republican convention in August, a move seen for what it is – distance from Trump. There will be more. 

Still, by ignoring Trump’s racism and division for so long in the interest of allowing their leader to remake their party into a petri dish where white grievance and cultural anger metastasize, Republicans, even those quietly bemoaning his tactics, will never succeed in cleaning this stain. Republicans, like the cowardly sheep who represent Idaho in Washington, D.C., bought the racist and now they own the racism. 

George Wallace, unlike Donald Trump, never made it all the way to the White House, but both men sadly prove an enduring point about our troubled country. The journalist Marshall Frady summed up the consequence – and danger – of such figures when he wrote in 1968: “As long as we are creatures hung halfway between the mud and the stars, figures like Wallace can be said to pose the great dark original threat.” 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Sticking with Trump

Tim Miller is a #NeverTrump conservative, a former top adviser to Jeb Bush and a pretty fair writer on our current politics. His piece recently in Rolling Stone where he sampled Trump opinions from the GOP consulting class received a good deal of attention. It’s good. He writes: 

“These swamp creatures were never the biggest Trumpers in the first place — his initial campaign team was an assortment of d-listers and golf course grunts rather than traditional GOP ad men. So why, as Trump’s numbers plummet, are these establishment RINOs continuing to debase themselves to protect someone who is politically faltering and couldn’t care less about them?” 

The answers are both enlightening and sad.  You can read it here.

How a History Text Book Might Explain 2020 So Far

James West Davidson writes history text books. He says in a piece in The Atlantic:

“By now it seems clear that we are all living through a major turning point in history, one that will be studied for years to come. Future textbook authors will write entries on the year 2020, revise them, and revise them some more with each new edition. What follows is an attempt at—literally—a first draft of history: what I might write if I were wrapping up the last chapter of a high-school history textbook right now.”

Read it and you may be surprised, as I was, about how stunning the events of our time seem when they are compressed into a single, tight narrative.

Tom Hanks 

I don’t normal spend much time with celebrity profiles, but I’ll make an exception for Tom Hanks. 

Hadley Freeman has a charming Hanks profile in The Guardian. She writes: “It’s true that, since I last interviewed him, his demeanor has shifted slightly from the nice Jimmy Stewart ‘aw shucks’-ness he had going on, to something more akin to the beatific kindness of Fred Rogers, ‘a part people like you would say I was born to play,’ he says. ‘For A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I ended up reading a lot of [Rogers] and he put ideas into words for me. There’s no reason not to greet the world with some kind of kindness.’”

Good observation. Read the entire profile

And finally…One of Ours 

Cather’s novel won the Pulitzer in 1923

Alex Ross writes in The New Yorker about Willa Cather’s enduring and under appreciated novel of war and loss. “When I revisited One of Ours in recent weeks,” he says, “I found it as haunting as anything I’ve read in this bewildering year. What seized my attention, not unexpectedly, was the section devoted to the flu pandemic of 1918.” 

I love Cather’s book. And am also a big fan of Ross’s book The Rest is Noise, which changed the way I think about music. It’s a classic.  

Thanks for following along here. All the best.

2020 Election, Foreign Policy, Trump

Our National Humiliation…

During a week when coronavirus deaths in the United States topped 120,000 and the president of the United States admitted he was trying to slow testing for the virus – more testing means more cases, after all – it might be difficult to fully process that we are also living through a unprecedented time of upheaval in American foreign policy. 

Whether you love him or hate him, Donald Trump has remade American standing in the world with consequences hard measure, but with impact long lasting. Trump’s upheaval has led to dangerous decline.

“Donald Trump has taken America out of key multilateral agreements, crossed swords with allies and pulled the U.S. from a leading role in geopolitical hot spots,” Bloomberg noted this week in an article about how Russian president Vladimir Putin was celebrating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II with a big parade in Moscow. Since Trump’s election in 2016, Putin has expanding his influence, while angling to stay in office much longer. 

The great American decline: Trump at the G-7 summit in 2019

The Trump led retreat from world leadership has, Bloomberg reported, “opened the way for Putin to build influence in Russia’s western flank, the Middle East and Africa, and to tighten an alliance with China. The planes flying in formation … over Moscow are a reminder that others will be eager to fill the gap if the U.S. withdraws further.”

One can deny the existence of Russian election help to Trump in 2016, but it’s impossible to deny the success of Putin’s repositioning at the expense of the United States and out closest, post-World War II European allies. 

Putin is certainly the largest beneficiary of Trump’s reported decision to remove nearly a third of U.S. troops based in Germany, a key NATO ally, a decision the BBC reported that was meet with widespread dismay in Europe, in part because there was no consultation or even warning. Many German officials believe the decision was prompted when chancellor Angela Merkel cancelled her visit to the U.S. because of the pandemic. In other words, the decision had less to do with a coherent national policy than the president’s personal pique. 

The administration’s Asia policy is in tatters with North and South Korea relations on a hair trigger. Trump tariffs on Chinese imports have cost American consumers (and farmers) billions and left the president begging Chinese president Xi Jinping, according to fired national security advisor John Bolton account, to help him win re-election by buying more U.S. goods. 

Bolton’s hefty book, its publication resisted to the very end by Trump, actually matters to our understanding of the feckless, chaotic Trump foreign policy. As conservative columnist Steve Hays argues only the most cultish Trump defender could dismiss a first-hand account “written by a longtime Republican and stalwart conservative—whose mustachioed face has appeared on Fox News more often than just about anyone other than the anchors.”

Pals: Donald and Vladimir

The power of Bolton’s book rests, Hays says, “less in attention-grabbing disclosure than in the relentless, almost mundane stupidity and recklessness of it all.” 

Or as David Ignatius, a long-time observer of American foreign policy, notes: “Among the most startling disclosures in [Bolton’s book] is his account of President Trump’s dealings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkey story — featuring the American president assuring Erdogan he would ‘take care of things’ in an ongoing federal criminal investigation — may be the clearest, most continuous narrative of misconduct by Trump that has yet surfaced.”

Ignatius says, “It’s a tale that connects some of Trump’s closest advisers: former national security adviser Michael Flynn, personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, and senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.” 

Former John McCain advisor Steve Schmidt says of all this that Trump, “has brought this country in three short years to a place of weakness that is simply unimaginable if you were pondering where we are today from the day where Barack Obama left office. And there were a lot of us on that day who were deeply skeptical and very worried about what a Trump presidency would be. But this is a moment of unparalleled national humiliation, of weakness.”

Trump is not alone, of course, in creating our unparalleled national humiliation. He had plenty of help, most notably in the foreign policy field from the junior senator from Idaho James E. Risch, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Enabling Trump, encouraging his worst instincts and behavior and assisting his destruction of American standing have been the raison d’être of Risch’s otherwise vacuous Senate career. 

When Trump’s first secretary of state Rex Tillerson was fired sometime after calling the president “a moron,” Risch said nothing, made no inquiry, expressed no concern. The same pattern unfolded when retired Marine general James Mattis quit in dispute with Trump over Syrian policy. When Bolton was fired Risch let it pass. He’s said nothing about Bolton’s disclosures. Following the Trump playbook, Risch regularly bashes China, but like the president has no policy ideas to deal with the Chinese military and economic threat. 

Risch has not pursued the case of brutally murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi but has effectively stonewalled efforts to hold the Saudi crown prince to account for the crime. When the State Department’s inspector general was fired recently for reportedly investigating why the administration sidestepped Congress to sell more arms to the corrupt kingdom, Risch said nothing and then helped the secretary of state evade an appearance before this committee.  

Murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Risch has gone down the line with Trump is dismissing Russian malevolence, while ignoring the clear effort by the president to coerce the Ukrainian president into a phony investigation of Joe Biden. And when six Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently complained to Trump that his draw down of U.S. troops in Germany would “place U.S. national security at risk,” helping only Putin, Risch was silent.

“We live with the idea that the U.S. has an ability to rebound that is almost unlimited,” Michael Duclos, a top European foreign policy official, told The Atlantic’s Tom McTague recently. “For the first time, I’m starting to have some doubts.” For good reason.

As Jim Risch mounts a low-key campaign for re-election, he’s counting that his weakness, his failure to use his position to stem American decline, won’t matter in the deluge of division and misdirection that will increasingly mark all Republican campaigns. Faced with an opponent who so far has been unable – or unwilling – to highlight the senator’s servile deference to Trump’s plundering of America’s standing, Risch will likely continue a 50-yearlong political career distinguished only by its overwhelming partisanship.

History will not be so forgiving. 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Bolton and the GOP

Michael Cohen writes in the Boston Globe: “I have little doubt that most every member of the GOP caucus, as well as Trump’s Cabinet, knows that Bolton’s account is spot-on, but the price for being a card-carrying member of the modern Republican Party is to regularly refuse to see what is in front of one’s nose. All of this makes the Bolton story more than your garden variety tale of grifters grifting. It’s the perfect parable for Trump’s malevolent presidency and the cabal of corrupted enablers too weak, too greedy, and too feckless to stop it.”

The Painful Reckoning 

Many stories this week about the faltering Trump campaign – I know it’s just June – and many, including this piece by Tim Miller, see the campaign’s recent Tulsa rally as a metaphor. Or as Vice President Mike Pence said – they’re going to make America great again, again.

The underwhelming Tulsa rally

Here’s Miller: “Donald Trump doesn’t know how to manage a global pandemic. He doesn’t understand how said crisis intersects with our economic decline or what to do about it. He is fundamentally incapable of being a uniter or a salve for a country that is raw with pain over police violence and racial tensions. And he doesn’t know what to do about the fact that Joe Biden is schlonging him in the polls.” Read the whole thing.

EU Considers U.S. Travel Ban

As the European Union considers keeping American’s out because of the uncontrolled spread of the virus, novelist Francine Prose asks how did we become a pariah nation?

“Unlike the US states that rushed to reopen too soon, that so clearly prioritized economic recovery over human life, the EU countries are saying they’d rather take the financial hit than see more of their citizens die.”

Gore Vidal

I’ve been reading a collection of essays by the late novelist Gore Vidal who, say what you will about his politics (or whatever), was a truly brilliant writer. Here’s a link to his still controversial post 9-11 essay – “The End of Liberty” – that was commissioned for Vanity Fair, but rejected.

Gore Vidal

And if you want to recall what Vidal was like on television you might find this amazing appearance on Dick Cavett’s show in 1971 interesting – or appalling. Cavett’s other guests were Norman Mailer and Janet Flanner, the great New Yorker writer.

Mailer refused to shake hands with Vidal and, well, it kind of went downhill from there. Watch it here.

And thanks for reading.

2020 Election, Civil Rights, Romney, Trump

Romney Alone…

Three moments involving three older white guys serve to highlight the incredible events that have placed racism, inequality and the essential soullessness of Donald Trump’s Republican Party in the middle of American life. 

The first moment occurred in Buffalo, New York a few days ago when a 75-year-old man, Martin Gugino, was violently knocked to the ground by local police officers during a peaceful protest against racism. Gugino’s head banged off the sidewalk and he immediately began bleeding. He was eventually transported to a hospital and spent several days in serious condition in intensive care. The video of the incident is difficult to watch, not least because one of the officers seemed to move to help Gugino but was prevented from doing so by a colleague as several other officers walked pass the elderly man as he lay motionless, blood around his head. 

In Buffalo, New York 75-year-old peace activist Martin Gugino was pushed by police, fell and was hospitalized

The second event occurred last weekend on the streets of Washington, D.C. when the most prominent political member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints marched in a Black Lives Matter protest. Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah, wearing a face mask with shirt sleeves rolled up, was asked by a reporter why had joined the protests that have spread to all 50 states. “We need to stand up and say that black lives matter,” Romney responded. Romney’s march was clearly motivated by his father, Michigan governor George Romney’s strong support for civil rights in the 1960s. 

The third event was the reaction to the first two. Reasonable, decent people – even many who opposed Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012 – praised his physical and verbal statement that was nothing less than an expression of solidarity with millions across the country who have been appalled by American racism and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Yet, virtually all the praise came from civil rights activists and Democrats. Romney’s fellow Republicans were silent. Except for one. 

“Tremendous sincerity, what a guy,” Donald Trump tweeted while cranking his caustic meter to hate speed. “Hard to believe,” the president said of Romney, “with this kind of political talent, his numbers would ‘tank’ so badly in Utah!” As with most of what the demented demagogue in the White House says his tweet was all projection and lies. 

Romney’s “numbers” are actually substantially better in Utah than Trump’s, even accounting for his controversial, albeit historically correct vote to remove Trump from office earlier this year. An early June poll in Utah pegged Romney’s favorable rating at 56, his unfavorable at 42. By contrast Utah’s other senator, Republican Mike Lee, stood at 46 favorable, 47 unfavorable. 

Another Utah poll earlier this year found that 54% of the state’s voters, among the most conservative in the county, would “probably or definitely not vote to re-elect the president in 2020.” The same number of voters say they approve of Romney standing up to Trump. A late May poll had Trump up by only 3% on prospective Democratic nominee Joe Biden. 

It is worth recalling that Mitt Romney once stood atop the Republican Party and the Idaho GOP loved him. Romney received 64% of the Idaho vote in 2012 and the state’s GOP leadership salivated at the thought of him in the White House. Jim Risch campaigned for Romney in Iowa and Colorado. Raul Labrador traveled with Romney’s Spanish speaking son to events in Hispanic communities in Colorado and Nevada. Butch Otter also stumped for Romney in Nevada and lavished praise on the GOP nominee, presenting him with a Boise State football. That was then. Trump is now and not a word utters from these morally bankrupt flunkies who have so debased themselves that they dare not speak no matter how ugly the deprivations of their leader.

Yet the true depth of the depravity of the wholly owned Trump Republican Party goes even lower than the president accusing Mitt Romney of insincerity for calling out racism. The current low point of Trump wickedness came when the president peddled the ludicrous conspiracy theory that 75-year-old Martin Gugino was some kind of antifa radical trying to set up the cops who might well have killed him. 

Gugino is actually a retired guy, a devoted Catholic, a peace activist who is well-known in his community for his quiet work on behalf of social justice, including repeatedly driving several hours in order to help prepare and serve meals at a facility whose mission is “follow(ing) Jesus in seeking justice for the poor.” A friend said of Gugino what can never be said of the president of the United States: “I have never heard him use a vile or angry word against anybody.” 

Romney condemned Trump’s slander. Few other Republicans did.

[Idaho Senator James Risch was asked about the incident after this column went to press. He bobbed and weaved his way through a remarkably mendacious interview with Fox News host Neil Cavuto, never coming close to condemning Trump’s disgusting slander and astoundingly ended up giving the comment credence.]

Still, there is a glimmer of sunshine amid the toxic clouds of lying, hatefulness, incompetence and political perversion that has overcome most elected Republicans in the age of Trump. Some conservatives are turning against the absurdity of it all. 

The stunts and gimmicks of the Republican reality television show have grown tired and worn and Trump’s ugliness is about all that remains. In those Utah polls cited earlier, LDS women are leading the turn. By a substantial percentage they approve of Romney’s brand of conservatism and reject Trump’s. Perhaps these moms and grandmothers realize, as Romney clearly does, that a fraud has been perpetrated on the country and they are sick of the hate and exhausted by the moral corruption. 

Trump defenders, including those in high office in Idaho, have shown they will accept policies and pronouncements, incompetence and idiocy and once would have been unthinkable to them had it come from a Democrat. In various ways back in 2016 they all labeled candidate Trump unfit. Back then you could almost hear them say: “how could we go from Mitt to this clown?”

But now like Rich Lowry, the editor of the old Bill Buckley journal National Review, a magazine that once devoted an entire issue to Trump’s unfitness, they have embraced their compromised morality. 

“There is no doubt that Trump’s periodic blustery assertions of having total authority are gross, would freak out Republicans if a Democrat made them, and deserve to be condemned,” Lowry wrote this week. But then Lowry immediately dismissed it all as a silly side show, saying “The president loves strength and is drawn to theatrical demonstrations of his own power.”

Four years ago Lowry’s magazine saw something else. “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.” Mitt Romney flirted briefly with the corrupt bargain that is Donald Trump. He had guts enough to reject the bargain. Were that Idaho’s boneless wonders more like him. 

—–0——

Additional Readings:

Trump’s March to Church for a Photo Op

A remarkable act of journalism by the Washington Post that I suspect will be a reference for years to come. “Drawing on footage captured from dozens of cameras, as well as police radio communications and other records, the Washington Post reconstructed the events of this latest remarkable hour of Trump’s presidency, including of the roles of the agencies involved and the tactics and weaponry they used.” Remarkable. Watch

A lasting image – the president and his Bible

Experts Have Knew the Pandemic Was Coming

A fantastic long read about how the world’s experts in such things knew a pandemic was coming and have known for a long time. But, too many in positions to really prepare didn’t. Here is one nugget that hints at what needs to be done before the next one comes:

“A universal influenza vaccine would require a monumental scientific effort, on the scale of the billion-dollar annual investment that has gone into fighting HIV/AIDS. The price tag would be enormous, but since another population-devouring flu pandemic will surely visit itself on the globe at some point, the expense would be justified many times over. Such a vaccine would be the greatest public health triumph since the eradication of smallpox.” Read it here.

The Editorial Page Flap at The Times

I don’t always agree with media critic Jay Rosen, but I always read his work. In this piece he pulls apart the recent story that forced the resignation of the editorial page editor of the New York Times. Rosen writes:

“The Trump presidency is demagogic and mostly fact-free. What if there is no way to defend the government without practicing bigotry or demagoguery— or just making stuff up? This is the kind of question editors at the New York Times have tried to avoid. They want to declare it impossible. And by trying to avoid it, by declaring it impossible, James Bennet lost his way, then lost his job.” Read the whole thing.

More Civic Education, Please

Danielle Allen is a brilliant Harvard scholar and political theorist who is a regular contributor to the Washington Post. She recently wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs that I couldn’t agree more with. She calls for a renewed commitment to civic education: 

“In the United States today, the art of governance is, at best, on life support. Paradoxically, Trump has delivered the best civics lesson in generations. Thanks to his impeachment trial, Americans have had to think about the proper bounds of executive power, the checks offered by the legislative and judicial branches, and precepts of the Constitution. Thanks to his failure to govern through this crisis, many have learned for the first time just how the United States’ federal system is supposed to work.”

The link is here.

Thanks for reading. Be well.

2020 Election, Trump, Uncategorized

Fantasy Land…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barack Obama’s birth certificate – from Hawaii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A conspiracy so immense…

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

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

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

—–0—–

Additional reading:

Trump: The Manly Man 

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

The Manly Man?

Masha Gessen on Rising Authoritarianism

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

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

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

Read the entire interview

New York Without Newspapers in 1945

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

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

The Man in the Red Coat

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

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

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

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

———

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

2020 Election, Foreign Policy, Trump

America’s Retreat…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–0—–

Additional reading:

Can these awful times make us better? 

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

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

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

What it was like to have lunch with Noel Coward?

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

The Algonquin Roundtable…

And finally, was Donald Trump a good baseball player? 

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

Thanks for reading…

Economy, Idaho Politics, Pandemic, Trump

The Next Wave

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

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

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

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

Never Trump and the Fight for the GOP Soul…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–0—–

Additional reading:

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

The Worst Failure. Period.

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

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

Trump is dwarfed by Lincoln in more ways than one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The buck doesn’t stop at Mar a Lago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–0—–

Additional reading:

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