Sunday, March 26, 2017

Weekend Roundup

We went to two funerals on Saturday: the first for long-time peace and justice activist Mary Harren (91), the second for my last uncle, James Hull (85), who spent 26 years as a mechanic in the Air Force, and was well known to Wichita Eagle readers as a right-wing crank. Main thing I was struck by was the difference in the crowds: close to 300 turned out for Mary, compared to about fifteen (not counting the Color Guard you taxpayers provided) for James. The former was quite properly a celebration of a long and fruitful life. The latter was rather sad, bitter, and pathetic.

We spent much more time with Mary over the last fifteen years: she was one of the first to welcome us to Wichita's small cadre of anti-war activists; she was quick to visit whenever we ran into troubles; and she was a frequent (and delightful) dinner guest. But she was so active and engaged that even while she made you feel special, you knew that she had dozens of other people and groups she did the same for. And she had been doing this for ages, sometimes regaling us with stories of political struggle over events I only vaguely remember from my teen years.

My interaction with James dates from those same years. Seems like he spent most of the 1950s stationed elsewhere -- Germany and somewhere near Las Vegas are places that stuck in my mind, although he joined in 1950 so was involved in Korea -- but after 1960 he was mostly based at McConnell AFB here in Wichita, and his family stayed here through two tours in Vietnam. After I turned 17 he lobbied me hard to sign up, but by then I was resolutely opposed to the Vietnam War and detested pretty much everything related to the military, so he was one of the first people I can recall arguing with about politics. (I was so withdrawn I'd scarcely speak to anyone, but he was so unflappable you couldn't help but argue with him.) After I moved away from Wichita, I had very little to do with him: while he was always very affable and loved a good (even a dirty) joke, his wife (Bobbie Ann) had terrified me as a child, and was so dim-witted and erratic I actively avoided her (and less actively their two shell-shocked sons -- the younger was what we used to call retarded; he wound up in some kind of special care facility and died at age 21). But I did run into him a few years ago, after Bobbie Ann had died, and he was cheerful as ever. He gave me a book he had written: a memoir plus a compilation of poems and political letters and a piece of his "scholarly" research which claimed that American economic performance correlates with frequency of executions, so to get the country moving again we should execute more felons.

He titled his memoir I Survived!, but there was virtually nothing in it about his wife or sons, so it's hard to imagine readers without personal knowledge making sense of his point. His work, and his bowling, and probably even his politics, make more sense as an escape from a disappointing home life. One pleasing thing about the funeral was that the pastor was a neighbor and friend, as was another person who spoke. So they made an effort to talk about the actual man rather than wander off into the hereafter. And they pretty much agreed that the man himself was a difficult, cranky person to be around.

The most revealing story was one where the pastor asked James what he had been doing today, and James answered "spreading hate and discontent." Asked what he had done yesterday, James answered the same, as he did when asked what he was planning on doing tomorrow. I'm not sure exactly what he thought he meant by that, but his politics was rooted in state violence, something he celebrated both in war and in his obsession over executions. Hate just greases the skids toward violence, which is part of why Trump has escalated the killing in places like Yemen and Syria despite claiming he opposes the disastrous wars Bush and Obama led. You can't sustain those wars without engendering and feeding off a lot of hate.

Another possibility was that James was conscious of how he rubbed people wrong with his crackpot theories. He did on occasion joke about the Secret Service coming after him after letters he wrote to the president. I suspect that in some cases he was contrarian for its own sake. Indeed, like with my father, his sense of humor was often rooted in irony against invisible foes. Still, at some point his right-wing bent hardened, probably egged on by the Fox News cabal. (Several people commented on how every time they saw him he had Fox News blaring -- his father and mine were very hard of hearing, and having worked around jet engines for many years I'm sure he was too.) That he wound up bitter and cranky and full of "hate and discontent" was, I think, baked into his political bent. The contrast to Mary couldn't have been more stark. She was probably every bit as critical of the world as he, but everything she did was imbued with hope and love. Even toward the end, she was full of grace. His pastor talked about grace, too, but it seemed like a long shot for James.

By the way, speaking of crowd numbers, there also was a "Make America Great" rally for Trump on Saturday. The Eagle's headline on the story was Dozens brave cold winds to rally for Trump. Not sure if the numbers are exaggerated, but the adverse weather sure was.

I got into a bit of a Facebook argument with Art Protin, who had posted a meme-pic showing the left half of Hillary Clinton's head and the caption (imagine in all caps): "The next time someone tries to tell you that Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate, remind them that it took the RNC, Wikileaks, the FBI and Russia to narrowly bring her down in an election she won by nearly 3 million votes." Being a reality-based sort of guy, my initial response was to list a dozen or so areas where she had acted or had taken positions that proved detrimental to most Americans, as if voters had been rational in rejecting her. That's not quite it, although we certainly shouldn't neglect the fact that, rightly or wrongly, she's picked up a lot of unfavorable baggage over the years, and that she's been the target of an awful lot of focused political hate -- both personally and due to her association with two Democratic administrations that promised much and delivered little to their neediest supporters. Those things worked to weaken her credibility and to tarnish her integrity, and that's the main thing we mean when we describe her as a weak candidate.

But really, the more glaring proof of her weakness is that she lost to DONALD J. TRUMP, who even before the election had the most negative approval ratings of any major party candidate ever, and who afterwards was subject to the greatest "buyer's remorse" we've seen since Nixon in 1972. Clearly, a lot of people hated Clinton so much that they voted for a guy they didn't like instead. I think a lot of factors entered into that choice, and I don't think any of them were very rational. (Sure, she's dishonest and corrupt and much more, but is she worse in any of these respects than Donald Trump? That comparison should have been laughably easy, yet somehow lots of people didn't realize it.) Given all of the points one could make against Trump, it's pretty much axiomatic that anyone who could still lose to him was an awfully weak candidate.

The meme also has several other faults. Leave aside the RNC for the moment, the other three forces arrayed against Clinton are/were pretty lame: Wikileaks, the FBI, and Russia. What Wikileaks did was one-sided (does anyone doubt that a hack of the RNC would have made them look like buffoons?) and Comey's dredging up of the whole email mess was unfortunate, but it's hard to believe that they had any more than the tiniest of impacts. And I have no idea what Russia did (beyond the DNC hack, and that's not clear) other than to soften the heads of some DNC types, who thought that red-baiting Trump as soft on Putin would be an easy score -- I can't prove it, but I think the net effect was to make Hillary look more recklessly hawkish, and that was something that hurt her. Of course, the continuing Russia obsession of frustrated Hillary-bots means something else: how hard it is to them to admit that they might bear any blame for policies or organization or candidate. Indeed, the whole meme is just another instance of scapegoating.

The three million vote margin is also at risk of being overplayed. Sure, it points to a structural problem (which Republicans will never allow to be fixed), but the problem is not just the structure for how it has been gamed, not least by the Democrats. Trump supporters can point out that they lost in states where they hardly campaigned at all (New York, Illinois, especially California), but the same was true for the 20-30 states Clinton didn't campaign in at all (including a couple she thought she'd carry): the net result being that the popular vote is bogus both ways. I think the net result is a wash, so Trump's failure to gain a plurality is a leading indicator of his unpopularity, but that only gets you so far. As Trump likes to say, "I'm president, and you're not." So while it properly embarrasses him that he only got paltry inauguration crowds, that his rallies regularly play to empty seats, and that he can only get 80 marchers out on a Spring day here in Wichita, it doesn't amount to much.

Biggest story this week was the demise of Paul Ryan's health care bill, which Donald Trump had pledged full allegiance to. Some links:

  • Ross Barken: Trump tried to burn down Obamacare. He set his hair on fire instead

  • Zoë Carpenter: Donald Trump Can't Make a Deal: "Now that the GOP's health-care bill is dead, plan B is to sabotage Obamacare."

  • Michelle Goldberg: The Biggest Lesson From the Trumpcare Debacle: "It showed us how government by misogynists actually translates into policy." This fits in with a picture that's been going around, depicting the "diverse group of people" brought together to craft the bill -- all white males, about equally divided between those with pattern baldness and not.

  • Paul Krugman: The Scammers, the Scammed and America's Fate: Krugman's favorite sport is "I told you so," and he's been telling us that Ryan is a fraud for many years now -- he cites a 2010 post called The Flimflam Man -- so he understands that this is no time to let up. He notes how the media has repeatedly promoted Ryan, and he think that this is due to "the convention of 'balance'." "This meant, in particular, that when it came to policy debates one was always supposed to present both sides as having equally well-founded arguments." I suspect that the truth is crasser: that Ryan was a pet project of the Kochs and their think-tanks long before you heard of him, and the people backing him have ever since been whispering in the ears of media managers and pundits.

  • Tom McCarthy: Health insurance woes helped elect Trump, but his cure may be more painful: Some Republicans, including most of the so-called Freedom Caucus who torpedoed the Ryan-Trump bill, believe that any form of government regulation in the health care markets is improper, that people should not be required to have insurance, that businesses should be free to sell any form of insurance (even policies that don't cover anything). Moreover, such people have no idea what such a world would look like, in part because nothing like that has ever been allowed in America. But most Republicans have done this hand-waving thing, arguing that if they were in power they'd "replace and repeal" Obamacare with something which would be so much better for everyone: that costs would go down and care would improve and everyone would be better off. They've never detailed how that might work, because they've never been in a position to pass it, until now, when it turns out that their proposals would quite obviously, one way or another, make it all worse. And this is not just health care: Republicans often feel the need to argue that their proposals will benefit everyone, even when it's clear that they'll be massively harmful.

  • Alice Ollstein: Trump to House GOP: Vote Yes on O'Care Repeal or Lose Your Seat: Early-week threat from the White House. Trump campaigned in the primaries on a relatively heterodox (or schizophrenic?) platform, but wound up stuck with a straight Republican Congress (well, actually one that is split between a hardcore conservative majority and an even more extreme right-wing faction), with virtually no personal commitment to the president. The effect is to allow him to pivot only one direction (right), which means he can only pass what they let him pass. So there's always been this fleeting fancy that Trump might try to steer the party his direction by purging uncooperative Republicans in the primaries. So that's sort of what's going on here, except that Trump didn't produce his own health care bill -- he acceded to Ryan's bill -- and most of the successful primary challenges lately have come from the right (Tim Huelskamp in Kansas was a rare exception, but he was very far out, and specifically his extreme anti-government stance offended agribusiness interests, who control damn near all of the economy in his district). So it's interesting that Trump made this threat, but it didn't work, and now seems pretty hollow.

    Another view of the purge story is: Daniel Politi: Bannon Pushed Trump to Use Health Care Vote to Write Up "Enemies List": After all, if Republicans only understand one big thing, it's how to exploit a list of enemies.

  • Amber Phillips: Donald Trump is giving a lot of mixed messages about whom to blame on health care; or pretty much the same thing: Joanna Walters: Trump blames everyone but himself for failure of GOP healthcare legislation.

  • Andrew Prokop: On health reform, Donald Trump followed Republican leaders into a ditch: Many of these pieces assume that Trump promised something better (even "really great") and got blind-sided by Ryan. More likely is that Trump never could care about health care, and was only mouthing words (including blatant lies) fed to him by right-wing propagandists, because that's easier than actually thinking.

  • Heather Richardson: The showdown that exposed the rift between Republican ideology and reality:

    Republicans have been able to paper over the vast gulf between their ideology and reality, so long as they could blame Democrats for their inability to put their ideology into law. They could rail about lower taxes and liberty, and then, when Democrats saved the policies that voters liked, could blame the socialistic Democrats for Republicans' own failure to enact their ideological vision. This tactic was at the heart of their rage against Obamacare, the symbol of their oppression since it passed seven years ago. Republicans in the House of Representatives voted more than 50 times to repeal the law, knowing they could count on Obama's veto to protect them from voters who would, in reality, be furious at the loss of their healthcare. . . .

    The initial draft of the bill reflected Republican ideological principles by giving the wealthiest Americans an $880bn tax cut. Even still, its retention of government regulations on healthcare were too much for purists. Members of the far-right Freedom Caucus insisted that the government must not interfere in healthcare, defending the principle that the law must be repealed entirely to resurrect American liberty. Other members of Congress, swamped by popular outcry against repeal, had to bow to reality: Americans actually like the law.

    The showdown over Obamacare finally brought into the open the fundamental rift between Republican ideology and reality. Speaker Ryan and President Trump tried to skirt that gulf by forcing the bill through in an astonishing 17 days. When that failed, Trump tried to bluster it out with the old Republican narrative, blaming Democrats, who are in the minority, for this epic failure. Neither worked. Since 1980, the Republican party has won power by hiding its unpopular ideology under a winning narrative, and reality has finally intruded.

    Also see: Matthew Sheffield: Downfall of a policy wonk: Paul Ryan becomes the latest victim of the American right's fundamental dysfunction.

Some more scattered links this week in the Trump swamp:

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

  • Dean Baker: Why the NY Times Is Chiefly Responsible for the Mass Ignorance About the US Budget

  • Steven A Cook/Michael Brooks: Bill Maher makes us dumber: How ignorance, fear and stupid pop-culture clichés shape Americans' view of the Middle East: "Americans used to be just ignorant about Muslims and the Middle East. Now we're also fearful, stupid and wrong."

  • Richard Falk: The Inside Story on Our UN Report Calling Israel an Apartheid State

  • Frank Rich: No Sympathy for the Hillbilly: Alerted to this piece by a Matt Karp tweet: "Elite liberals keep writing about sympathy because they have no concept of solidarity." Headline-wise this reinforces stereotypes as much about New York liberals as about hillbillies, Down in the text Rich cites various (mostly right-wing) studies complaining that hillbillies are morally degenerate (Charles Murray, really?). Not that Rich is really that stupid -- I can't object to his pull quote, "Instead of studying how to talk to 'real people,' might Democrats start talking about real people?" Also, this starts out accurate enough before plunging over the deep end:

    Trump voters should also be reminded that the elite of the party they've put in power is as dismissive of them as Democratic elites can be condescending. "Forget your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap," Kevin Williamson wrote of the white working class in National Review. "The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible." He was only saying in public what other Republicans like Mitt Romney say about the "47 percent" in private when they think only well-heeled donors are listening. Besides, if National Review says that their towns deserve to die, who are Democrats to stand in the way of Trump voters who used their ballots to commit assisted suicide?

    The problem here is that the Republicans aren't the only political party who have written off the vast expanses of America outside the mostly coastal urban areas. The Democrats offer a bit more generous "safety net" but they still make it look and smell like welfare, and with their trade deals and bank deregulation and indifference to unions (which in any case are out of reach to most workers) the Democrats been as complicit in the decline of the heartland as the Republicans. The main difference is that Republicans have been much more successful at blaming Democrats for policies that both parties' elites support, at least in "red states" where Democrats have abandoned and no longer campaign in -- partly due to the ascendancy of snobs like Rich, and partly from sheer expediency.

Got a late start on this, so it feels more scattered than usual. So much crap to deal with these days. So little time.

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