Sunday, March 5, 2017

Weekend Roundup

For a while there, I thought I had shot my wad on Thursday's Midweek Roundup, but it didn't take long for the floodgates to open.

I thought I'd start this with a remarkable letter that appeared in the Wichita Eagle by Gregory H. Bontrager, under the title "Trump on our side" (emphasis added):

The same media that is hounding President Trump are the same ideological malcontents that gave President Obama a free pass for eight lost years of American history. Finally, the middle class has a friend in the White House.

If you like welfare, food stamps or unchecked borders, Obama is the man for you. But if you work for a living or own your own business, Trump is on your side. Despite media hype, the age of the working man has arrived, as personified by Trump.

No more apologies will be accepted from America-hating elitists and the clueless children they foster on college campuses.

The American worker will no longer be held hostage to insane regulations by runaway bureaucracies such as the Environmental Protection Agency or rogue tax collectors in the IRS who have been weaponized by Democrats to suppress political opposition.

The Democratic Party cares more about the rights of illegal aliens than your children being able to walk safely down the streets of their own neighborhoods.

Whether they sit on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals or the city councils of sanctuary cities, it is time to push aside these apostate Americans and take our country back.

As someone who grew up in a union household, I can't help but be moved by this "working man" rhetoric, although I recognize that close to half of wage-earners in America are women, and that most of the jobs people work at today are in the service sector, more or less removed from the muscle and grime associated with the working men of yore -- hardly a vanished species, but much less prevalent than in my father's and grandfather's days. Nor do I begrudge the right of some people "who own their own business" to think of themselves as "working men" -- those, at least, who actually do some of their own work, as opposed to the ones who merely bark orders and push papers, but I know full well that nothing changes a person like controlling a business' checkbook, especially politically.

Still, what I find unfathomable is how anyone who's not a real estate magnate (or maybe a hedge fund manager) can imagine that Donald Trump -- a man who's spent every waking moment in the last fifty years pursuing his own wealth and celebrating his own ego -- would be on their side, or even give half a shit about them. Even the author's laundry list of phobias doesn't justify his leap of faith.

Most wage earners -- a more accurate if less romantic term than "working man" -- understand that welfare and food stamps are part of a safety net that, when properly supported, protects the lowest earners from disaster. Even people who never directly make use of such support benefit from living in a society which doesn't allow abject poverty to fester. Similarly, most government regulation is meant to protect workers and communities from the sort of abuses that inevitably tempt profit-seeking private businesses. It's easy to see why some short-sighted business owners may take umbrage at inspectors and tax collectors, but aside from lost jobs when badly managed businesses fail, workers generally benefit from policies which keep businesses from cutting corners.

It is true that if you think your problems are caused by policies which limit the greed and avarice of private companies, Trump will (sometimes) be "on your side." And if you see "illegal aliens" as some sort of plague, you may take some pleasure in Trump's callous and cruel demonization of America's most downtrodden immigrants and refugees. But neither of those stances makes you a "working man," nor does it guarantee that Trump will be your champion. For starters, the man is a world class liar and demagogue, as should already be clear from his selective memory of his campaign promises.

The stuff about Obama and the Democrats is harder to explain, other than that the author appears to have indeed been held hostage the last eight years, not by federal bureaucrats but by the right-wing fantasy media. Although appeals to the vanishing middle class have been a staple of both parties, few politicians in recent memory have devoted so much of their rhetoric to the cause as has Barack Obama. One might fault Obama for delivering so little to the middle class: under him, despite a modest tax increase on the rich, income inequality has continued to increase, the safety net has continued to fray, and his signature health care program delivered at best a mixed blessing. But the idea that with Trump replacing Obama "the middle class has a friend in the White House" is patently absurd.

To be clear, the "middle class" most of my generation grew up in -- we're talking 1950s here -- was the product of two things: a strong union movement which lifted both blue- and white-collar wage-earners to the level where they could own houses and send their kids to public colleges, and near-confiscatory (up to 90%) income tax rates on the still well-to-do managers and owners. (Paul Krugman called this "the great compression" -- see The Conscience of a Liberal.) Look for anything like this in Trump's platform: there's not even a hint of anything comparable. Rather, what the Republicans -- and this is certainly why Trump chose to become one -- have pushed ever since Reagan (or Calvin Coolidge or William McKinley or the robber barons who took over the GOP in the 1870s) is the notion that we'll all be better off if only we let businesses pursue profits unfettered by any sense of social responsibility. It should be clear by now that only the very rich have benefited from that theory, and only to the extent that they've been able to isolate themselves from the world they've left behind. The "middle class" is not a natural condition in capitalist society: it exists only because policies have forced a more equal distribution of the national wealth. Take those policies away, and, sure, a few people can become much richer, while a great many slip into increasing poverty. And that's not just theory. That's what has actually happened, to the extent that Republicans have been able to seize power since 1980.

So there's nothing in Trump's platform to make him "a friend of the middle class." But it's just as incredible to think he might be a friend of anyone. Friendship is based on empathy, common understanding, and mutual respect. To achieve that usually requires familiarity, engagement, and interaction. But how much opportunity does someone like Trump get to interact with even "middle class" (much less poor) people when he lives in the penthouse on top of Trump Tower, is chauffeured around town, and flies on private planes around the world -- at least to the few spots where he owns luxury resorts full of deferential employees and frequented by guests as rarefied as he himself is? Even leaving aside his personality, charitably described as narcissistic, no one can reasonably expect him to relate to, much less empathize with, the everyday problems of most Americans.

The letter contains more absurdities, both of fact -- Obama, rather notoriously, deported more undocumented immigrants than any previous president -- and of interpretation -- I can't even imagine the "free pass" he thinks Obama was granted, or what "eight lost years of American history" even means. (Although thanks to Bush and Republican obstruction of Obama we've wasted sixteen years. and counting, that could have been used to counter global warming -- something future generations are sure to judge us harshly for.)

The Kansas State Legislature passed a law repealing Gov. Sam Brownback's income tax exemption for business owners, at long last promising to fill a budgetary hole that has plagued Kansas since 2011. Brownback vetoed, the House overrode, but the Senate barely sustained the veto, primarily thanks to Republican Majority Leader Susan Wagle switching her position. Richard Crowson drew the cartoon at right to mark the occasion. Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau took exception to the cartoon, noting that depicting Wagle as a "female dog" was tantamount to calling her a, well, you know. Ranzau is probably the most outrageously reactionary politician in Kansas, at least in recent years. Of course, it isn't his fault that his name resonates as some lesser known Nazi extermination camp, one you can't quite put your finger on. Still, one would be less likely to make the connection if he had somewhat more moderate take on politics. See Crowson thanks Ranzau for showcasing cartoon.

Robert Christgau forwarded this tweet by James F Haning II, proclaiming it "perfect":

Donald Trump is a stupid man's idea of a smart man, a poor man's idea of a rich man, a weak man's idea of a strong man.

There certainly is a lot of projection concerning Trump. There is scant evidence to support many of the traits his fans attribute to him (although, even without tax returns, he does a fairly good job of passing for rich, even compared to the bottom of the top percentile). And rich seems to buttress the notions of smart and strong, especially given that they don't stand up all that well on their own. He has a bully aspect, but that's mostly exercised through lawyers; other than that he talks big, but is known to tone it down when faced with likely opposition (as during his campaign stop in Mexico, where he offered none of the slander and fury of his post-visit immigration rant). As for smart, he's clearly not even remotely a smart man's idea of smart. Whether stupid men are that stupid is another question: he clearly has a knack for exploiting some people's insecurities, and for projecting himself as their savior. Part of that comes from a very instinctual, almost bred-in, sense humans have that in crisis they should rally behind the guy who looks strongest -- an instinct that's likely to give you a Napoleon, a Churchill, or a Hitler (most of whom turned out to be disasters). Part is that many Americans have way too much admiration for the rich. And part is the luck of running against people who hardly inspire anyone at all. But much of it is that with Trump we have a man who is extraordinarily self-centered and immodest, so much so he doesn't betray any lack of confidence in his abilities, even though they are manifest to anyone who bothers to look.

Some scattered links this week in the Trumpiverse:

  • George Zornick/ZoŽ Carpenter: Everything Trump Did in His 6th Week That Really Matters: A regular series that goes beyond chasing tweets. Sub-heads:

    • Halted a probe into airline-price transparency. "Stocks in major airlines increased 2 percent."
    • Absolved senior adviser Kellyanne Conway of wrongdoing. Re her promotion of Ivanka Trump's clothing line, contrary to federal ethics rules. "The White House concluded that Conway acted 'without nefarious motive,' and did not announce any disciplinary actions."
    • Swore in a commerce secretary with serious conflicts of interest. Multi-billionaire Wilbur Ross, who among other things "served as the vice-chair of the Bank of Cyprus, 'one of the key offshore havens for illicit Russian finance.'"
    • His attorney general recused himself from Russia inquiries. Jeff Sessions, who falsely testified to the US Senate during confirmation that he had no contact with Russian officials.
    • Announced a special exemption for the Keystone XL pipeline. He also ordered that all pipelines be made with American steel "to the maximum extent possible," which turns out to be not at all. (See Keystone Pipeline Won't Use US Steel Despite Trump Pledge.)
    • Ordered a review of water regulations. The first step toward undoing clean water rules developed by the EPA under Obama.
  • Julia Edwards Ainsley: Trump administration considering separating women, children at Mexico border

  • Eric Alterman: The Media's Addiction to False Equivalencies Has Left Them Vulnerable to Trump: "Decades of conservative efforts to work the press are paying off handsomely." I've described this as the "Earl Weaver effect": you always argue with the umps, not so much to convince them now as to make them more likely to give you a call later on (thus avoiding another scarifying encounter).

  • Coral Davenport; Trump to Undo Vehicle Rules That Curb Global Warming: "The E.P.A. will also begin legal proceedings to revoke a waiver for California that was allowing the state to enforce tougher tailpipe standards for its drivers." Also by Davenport: Top Trump Advisers Are Split on Paris Agreement on Climate Change. A few, like Rex Tillerson, recognize that withdrawal will have adverse impact on how the US is viewed throughout the world. After all, it's a pretty clear message: to protect our industry profits, we don't care what the impact is to the rest of the world: fry, drown, whatever. Note that even if the US doesn't formally withdraw, Trump's EPA is already working hard to make climate catastrophe irreversible. Also see: Steven Mufson/Jason Samenow/Brady Dennis: White House proposes steep budget cut to leading climate science agency: maybe if we stop studying the problem, we won't notice when it happens, so won't know who to blame.

  • Josh Dawsey: Trump's advisers push him to purge Obama appointees: Well, actually they'd like to purge much of the civil service as well as a few dozen holdovers still trying to do their jobs. ("Candidates for only about three dozen of 550 critical Senate-confirmed positions have even been nominated.") A big part of the problem here is that Trump campaigned by totally misrepresenting what Obama's administration had been doing, treating it as all bad and therefore all in need of radical change. But the election didn't change any laws, and policy changes are subject to many checks and balances. No past administration started with a clean slate, and most saw continuity as a virtue. Trump is different partly because he set up the expectation of radical change, and partly because his people have proven unusually incompetent -- I'd say that's largely due to his party having made obstruction its norm for eight years (after making destruction the norm for two terms under GW Bush). Still, the immediately burning issue is that they're steamed about leaks revealing their incompetence. A better solution would be to try to behave in ways that aren't embarrassing to the public, but that's a level of maturity they haven't grown into yet (if indeed they ever will).

  • Paul Feldman: A deadly pattern: States that went red during 2016 election saw more workplace fatalities: Chart is pretty starkly amazing, with only two states above 3.0 (New Mexico and Nevada) voting Democratic, and only one state below 3.0 (Arizona) voting Republican.

  • Jon Finer/Robert Malley: How Our Strategy Against Terrorism Gave Us Trump: Actually, the US doesn't have a strategy against terrorism any more, and hasn't since it became clear that reconstructing Iraq along Texas lines wasn't going to pay off. What passes for one is no more than whacking all the terrorists we notice, or people in their vicinity -- the sort of knee-jerk spasms dead chickens are noted for. What gave us Trump was the callousness and ignorance of continuing a hopeless and hapless war despite clear proof that of having no clue. In early Bush days the US could present itself as some kind of friend, and occasionally find acceptance and support, but those days are long gone as the frustration of losing has turned Americans into haters of all things Islamic. I think it was predictable from the start that this approach would fail, but the authors are still committed to the mission no matter how badly it fails.

  • Todd C Frankel: How Foxconn's broken pledges in Pennsylvania cast doubt on Trump's jobs plan: One thing I'm struck by is how many of the companies Trump's counting on to "invest in America" are Chinese -- not just that their offers are subject to political ploys but that their bottom line depends on getting lower labor costs in the US than they are already getting in China. This doesn't seem like much of a golden opportunity.

  • Jonathan Freedland: Donald Trump isn't the only villain -- the Republican party shares the blame

  • David Cay Johnston: Trump's Lament That He 'Inherited a Mess' of an Economy? False! Sad! Various measures of the economy were actually up for the last months of Obama's second term, with the median wage "began rising in 2013 after 15 years of being in the doldrums." This momentum, a far cry from the "mess" Trump has already started blaming for his own incompetence, will likely continue to buoy Trump for months or even a couple years to come, until Trump (like Bush before him) blows it all to hell. For more on this, see: Christian Weller: The truth about Obama's economic legacy and Trump's inheritance.

  • Paul Krugman: Goodbye Spin, Hello Raw Dishonesty:

    At this point it's easier to list the Trump officials who haven't been caught lying under oath than those who have. This is not an accident. [ . . . ]

    In part, of course, the pervasiveness of lies reflects the character of the man at the top: No president, or for that matter major U.S. political figure of any kind, has ever lied as freely and frequently as Donald Trump. But this isn't just a Trump story. His ability to get away with it, at least so far, requires the support of many enablers: almost all of his party's elected officials, a large bloc of voters and, all too often, much of the news media. [ . . . ]

    But then you watch something like the way much of the news media responded to Mr. Trump's congressional address, and you feel despair. It was a speech filled with falsehoods and vile policy proposals, but read calmly off the teleprompter -- and suddenly everyone was declaring the liar in chief "presidential."

    The point is that if that's all it takes to exonerate the most dishonest man ever to hold high office in America, we're doomed.

    Krugman also wrote Coal Is a State of Mind: Trump keeps insisting that he'll bring back coal mining jobs, but nothing -- not technology and not economics -- suggests he can, no matter how much political will he puts behind it:

    The answer, I'd guess, is that coal isn't really about coal -- it's a symbol of a social order that is no more; both good things (community) and bad (overt racism). Trump is selling the fantasy that this old order can be restored, with seemingly substantive promises about specific jobs mostly just packaging.

    One thought that follows is that Trump may not be as badly hurt by the failure of his promises as one might expect: he can't deliver coal jobs, but he can deliver punishment to various kinds of others.

  • Laila Lalami: Donald Trump Is Making America White Again: The detail points are worth reading, but file this under really bad titles. For one thing, America has never been white, no matter how marginalized the political system made non-whites. For another, while Trump will make America more hurtful for non-whites, nothing he can do will change the racial, religious, and/or ethnic demography of the nation to any meaningful degree. The most he and his fans can hope for is to slow down what they view as a demographic disaster, and perhaps to jigger the system a bit to politically marginalize what they view as undesirable Americans -- that is, after all, the point of the voter suppression laws that are all the rage in Republican legislatures.

  • Jefferson Morley: Who wins? Donald Trump vs. the Koch Brothers on jobs: I had to read down the article to even find out what Trump was thinking of as his jobs program: turns out it's the BAT (Border Adjustment Tax), which is really just a tariff. The Kochs are organizing against BAT, and they have things Trump doesn't have, like a grass roots organization that has been very successful at getting Republicans elected to Congress. (In many ways Trump sailed to the presidency on their coat tails.) So no, it's pretty much dead in Congress, and there's damn little Trump can do about that.

  • Paul Rosenberg: America's infrastructure disaster -- and why Donald Trump will do nothing to fix it:

    The last time it was issued, back 2013, our infrastructure got an overall grade of D+, with a projected $3.6 trillion investment needed by 2020 -- more than 3 1/2 times the amount that President Donald Trump has promised (mostly from private investors) over a much longer period. Grades ranged from a high of a single B- for solid waste to a low of D- in two categories -- levees and inland waterways. There were more straight Ds than anything else -- for schools, dams, aviation, roads, transit, wastewater, drinking water and hazardous waste. Rail and bridges both rated C+, ports a straight C, public parks and recreation a C- and energy a D+. Even Bart wouldn't be proud of that.

    The key problem is that we let business ideologues (mostly but not exclusively Republicans) convince us that government can't do anything competently (except wage war, which kind of proved their point) so we're better off not wasting our money -- just wait for the private sector to fill the need. This is, of course, exactly not how we got all our infrastructure in the first place (the whole point of Jacob S Hacker/Paul Pierson: American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper).

  • Matthew Rozsa: This week in Donald Trump's conflicts of interest: Favoritism from Vancouver to New York City. Rosza also wrote President Pence's problems: Indiana Democrats say VP was "the worst governor we ever had" -- something to bear in mind before you impeach Trump.

  • Katy Waldman: We All Talk Like Donald Trump Now: Sad! Oh, dear! Even when we satirize him the mental rot is contagious! As if we didn't have enough to worry about already!

  • Matthew Yglesias: Trump is Mad Online at Obama, Schwarzenegger, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court: This day (March 4) in tweets. Personally, I'm just gratified that when Trump refers to "McCarthyism" and "Nixon/Watergate" he's treating them as bad things. Nor do I especially mind him dissing Schwarzenegger, recently departed from Trump's former reality show. For more on the latter (possibly the week's least momentus "news") see: Todd VanDerWerff: Arnold Schwarzenegger is leaving The Celebrity Apprentice. He blames President Trump.

Also a few links less directly tied to Trump, though sometimes still to America's broader bout of political insanity:

  • William Astore: In Afghanistan, America's Biggest Foe Is Self-Deception: Actually, that's true in America as well. When future generations look back on America today (assuming they should be so lucky), one big thing they will puzzle over is how so many people could have believed in so much really crazy shit.

  • Tony Blair, Who Brought US the War in Iraq, Lectures on the Evils of Populism: Or more to the point, "he criticizes the left for abandoning centrist politicians," like himself -- where centrism means pretending to have a social conscience while serving the advancement of "clean" businesses like high-tech and finance. ("Tony Blair has worked as an advisor to JP Morgan and Zurich Financial Services, since retiring as prime minister.")

  • James Carden: Why Does the US Continue to Arm Terrorists in Syria? Well, because the US doesn't have a clue what it's doing in Syria, or for that matter all across the Middle East. Because US strategists feel the need to choose sides in a contest where no sides are viable let alone right. Because they can't contemplate of resolving problems but by force of arms. And because they, like the "terrorists" they claim to oppose, see terror as a tactic for advancing political goals.

  • Ian Cummings: FBI undercover stings foil terrorist plots -- but how many are agency-created? I think it's pretty clear that Terry Loewen here in Wichita would never have done anything but for FBI prodding. Several other cases mentioned here are similar. I think the Garden City case where three guys planned an attack on a Somali neighborhood was real, but the FBI has a long history of trying to provoke crimes, and that has probably gotten worse with all the "war on terror" nonsense.

  • Nelson Denis: After a Century of American Citizenship, Puerto Ricans Have Little to Show for It

  • Richard J Evans: A Warning From History: Review of Volker Ullrich's recent biography, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, by the author of The Coming of the Third Reich and two massive sequels. I can see the fascination, but I'm more struck by the dissimilarities between then and now -- one is reminded of Marx's quip about the arrival of Napoleon III: "history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce." Nor do I mean to downplay the real people hurt by Trump's policies and acts. But Germany faced a real crisis in 1928-32, and Hitler presented a plausible (albeit totally wrong-headed) solution until his absolute self-confidence and ruthlessness drove the nation over a cliff. Trump's demons are almost totally imaginary (his 40% unemployment rates, the rampaging crime wave, hordes of demented illegal aliens, more hordes of fanatical Muslims), and despite a modest Defense Department budget bump (that will quickly be sopped up by graft) one doubts that he or his anti-government henchmen will ever be able to turn the state into a truly ominous force. Still, his impulses and tendencies are so bad it helps to be reminded how catastrophically they've failed in the past.

    Still, if you want to go further down this rathole: Anis Shivani: Trump and Mussolini: Eleven key lessons from historical fascism. Some key points:

    1. Fascism rechannels economic anxiety: key thing is that it doesn't relieve it, it just redirects blame.
    2. Liberal institutions have already been fatally weakened: I wouldn't say it's fatal here (yet), but Trump wouldn't have risen without the discrediting of key institutions, like the military in the Middle East and bankers everywhere.
    3. Of course it's a minority affair: The Tea Party and the alt-right are every bit as vanguardist as the Bolsheviks, but are rooted in venerable Americanisms, like Nixon's "dirty tricks" and Lombardi's "winning is the only thing."
    4. Its cultural style makes no sense to elites: which in turn makes it hard to counter; it's easy to prove that Trump isn't smart but you won't impress his fans by doing so -- they've spent every moment of the last eight years loathing Obama, suspecting that his brains are merely the engine of deviousness. (Nor did Meryl Streep dissing football gain any traction.)
    5. No form of resistance works: Have fascists ever been voted out of office, given that one thing they've always been quick to do is to rig the system (much like the Republicans with their voter restriction laws, though often even more brutal). "Nothing ever works until fascism's logic, the logic of empire, stands discredited to the point where no denial and no media coverup is possible anymore." Actually the Axis was only "discredited" by the most brutal military counterattack in history.
  • Daniel Politi: Pentagon Has Been Waging Secret Cyberwar Against North Korea Missiles for Years: Perhaps this has something to do with why North Korea is so paranoid, so erratic, and ultimately so dangerous? We have thus far failed to develop the sort of taboo that inhibits other forms of war, like chemical weapons -- in fact, cyberwar usually doesn't even get recognized as such. In a better world, our recent brush with Russian hacking would lead the US and Russia to work toward mutual controls, including suppressing their own independent hackers. But as long as we all think this sort of thing is OK it continues, sometimes with dire consequences.

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