Friday, August 6, 2021

Speaking of Which

I've been reading Steve Benen's The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics, because it seemed likely to establish one of my own themes of late: that Trump is a mere reflection of the longer term moral and intellectual rot of the Republican Party. Of course, he couldn't resist illustrating this theme with Trump examples -- no one else has ever merged so succinctly thoughts that are fact-free, reason-free, careless, and mean-spirited. But Trump became the leader of the Republicans not because he paved the way, but he followed their Geist so flamboyantly. (Sorry for the German, but the usual translation of "spirit" doesn't quite do the concept justice; also it loses the sense of personification, the common root of "ghost," although in this case "zombie" would be more to the point. English speakers more often see the derivative Zeitgeist, the "spirit of the times," although the Republican Geist doesn't belong to the times so much as it attempts to defeat them.)

The thing that Benen doesn't make clear enough is that while the Republicans have been evil for quite some time -- from Goldwater they learned that extremism in defense of the rich is no vice; from Nixon they learned that winning justifies all manner of lying, stealing, and cheating; from Reagan they learned to live in a dream world of their own vanities; from the Bushes they learned that war is the ultimate form of self-glorification -- they didn't become shameless about it until the loss to Obama blew their minds. That was when Fox metamorphosed from being dutiful apologists for Republican politics and became raging agitators, spewing whatever rhetoric they could use to leverage their followers emotions, with no consideration for where that rhetoric might lead. They orchestrated an insurrection, and branded and sold it as the Tea Party. Having plunged the nation into an endless, hopeless series of wars, and having wrecked the economy on a bubble of deceit and fraud, they were voted out, and miraculously freed of responsibility for the disasters they had created.

Benen's formulation isn't quite right. Repubicans didn't "quit governing." They were fired, but since they weren't held accountable for the many things they had done wrong, the lesson that they learned was that they could get away with anything -- all it would take is the sort of confident bluster Trump excelled in. Yet to say they "seized American politics" gives them too much credit for deliberate plotting. They crippled political discourse, reducing it to their level of trash talk and gutter sniping. Their relentless attack media, combined with the deference showed by the mainstream media, gave them a huge advantage. They were also helped by Democrats playing into their hands.

Benen's favorite term for today's Republicans is "post-policy." Like "post-truth," it takes a glaring failure and refashions it as a clever novelty. But there's nothing new here: all "post-" means is we take no responsibility for failures, be they bad policies or mistruths. For Republicans, the key to unaccountability is their core belief: that government is incapable of doing things that help most citizens. You can trace that back to Reagan's joke ("The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help"), although the idea is older -- cf. Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand, among other cult favorites. Once you buy into that joke, the only reason you need for electing Republicans is to deny Democrats the opportunity to prove you wrong. On the other hand, when Republicans botch governance, they're simply proving themselves right. Trump did that so completely he ranks in their minds as "the greatest president of all time."

This is my second draft note on Benen's book. I started a few days ago just wanting to comment on one little quote:

In the days leading up to [Trump's] inauguration, the president-elect boasted, "We're going to have insurance for everybody. "He added that Americans "can expect to have great health care. . . . Much less expensive and much better."

The president-elect even went so far as to establish specific benchmarks: universal coverage, "much lower deductibles," and a simpler and less expensive system in which all Americans are "beautifully covered."

Trump's oft-promised replacement plan never materialized, which suggests either that he was never serious about coming up with one, or that he belatedly discovered "health care is hard" (didn't look it up, but I think that's an actual quote from him, followed by "who knew?"). Unlikely the latter, as there's no evidence that he could discern good from bad policies, unless one was labeled by party: Democratic policies are guaranteed to be "bad," because even if they work as defined, that would make Democrats look good, and that would be bad. On the other hand, Republican policies are always good, because they supplant bad Democratic policies, and even if they fail no one will blame Republicans, because, you know, government never works anyway.

But what I wanted to point out was that Trump could have offered a health care plan to replace ACA that would have met his pie-in-the-sky policy goals: a single-payer "Medicare-for-All" scheme. Sure, a lot of well-heeled business forces would have been upset, but if Republicans rallied to his plan, it could have been passed (even attracting some Democrat votes). Admittedly, it wouldn't exactly be the plan Bernie Sanders has been campaigning for. Once Republicans accepted the key concept of universal coverage, and the necessity of limiting some of the greediest, most predatory companies anywhere, they could still do much to tailor the program to their prejudices. Bill Clinton described the "end of welfare as we know it" deal he made with Newt Gingrich as "a good welfare bill wrapped in a sack of shit." One thing Republicans can still be trusted to deliver is a sack of shit.

A Republican version of single-payer would keep open a role for private insurance companies, but they would be selling supplemental policies, like they currently do for people who have Medicare. The universal health care policy would just cover the basics, including vaccinations, regular check ups, emergency room visits, a standard menu of surgeries, and the risk of catastrophic care -- just enough to keep the system viable, and save patients from bankruptcy. These services could be riddled with co-payments and deductibles, for which you could either have to buy supplemental insurance, or find providers willing to waive fees. In other words, the system would be stratified by class, with the well-to-do having lots of options, others less so. Private insurance would be cheaper, because the insurance companies are protected against serious risks, and could offer lots of choices. Also, political control of the system could be delegated to the states (or multi-state compacts), which would avoid the "federal takeover" charge.

There are lots of ways the system could be made more efficient. One big one would be to phase out patent monopolies, which would make the supply chain and pharmaceuticals much more competitive. One that appeals especially to Republicans would be to end (or at least cap) malpractice awards. (Supposedly this risk drives a lot of "defensive medicine" waste, but it's certainly true that malpractice insurance takes a but chunk of doctor income, and hospitals and drug companies have huge exposure.) The big question will be how to rearrange current health care spending to support such a system, but with modest cost savings it could be done without raising more net taxes -- a key requirement for Republicans.

Of course, Republicans won't propose anything like this. The greed of the health care system hurts all other businesses, but Republicans are committed to defending every existing profit-seeking scheme, no matter how dubious or dangerous. They believe in self-responsibility, which means everyone should take what they can, with the winners free to enjoy their spoils. They don't care that health care is a classic market failure, even given its cancerous growth, as it's expanded from negligible to over 20% of GDP. And, as noted above, they believe that government intervention would only cause more harm, even though no other alternative is up to the task. But also, Republicans don't care whether working people have health care, so they have no motivation to do anything to help people.

Every now and then, someone tries to point out that we'd be in even worse shape if Republicans had elected someone competent, instead of an incompetent moron like Trump. That underestimates the real damage that was done by four years of Republican rule, mostly by the minions given free range to implement their neuroses and fantasies. But it also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Trump's role in all of this. He was the front man, the media magnet. When people paid him so much the attention, they overlooked everyone around him. He had built-in deniability: after all, he was a moron. No one even tried to reason with him. He attracted an intense and impervious personal cult. When he won in 2016, I figured Republican regular would flock to him, if for no reason other than that he was their winner, and winning was the only thing that Republicans really cared about. And that's exactly what happened, but even now, as a loser-in-denial, he remains a powerful symbol for his party. He remains their leader, because he is them, and vice versa. They're all morons. They're all assholes. And they're proud of it. They think anyone who isn't with them isn't a real American, and they hate your guts.

If you could reason with them, they'd be able to see the advantages of backing a "radical" proposal like single-payer. But you can't, and they won't figure it out on their own. That's what makes this a good example of how limited they are.

A few recent articles I noticed:

Jonathan Chait: Tucker Carlson Has Seen the Future, and It Is Fascist: "Orban's Hungary is the road map for American authoritarianism." Only the headline writer uses the F-word here, but that's a bit of a trend regarding Viktor Orban's Hungary -- Chait prefers "authoritarian" but also offers "kleptocracy." It's probably easier to call fascist the leader of a country with a history of fascism, but there isn't much political daylight between Orban and Trump (or Carlson). But the disturbing thing about Orban as a model isn't his reactionary view but the way he's rejiggered Hungary's political system to ensure his party will rule even when the voters turn against him. His innovations read like a road map for the Republican Party, which studies and envies him. For more, see Zack Beauchamp: Why it matters that Tucker Carlson is broadcasting from Hungary this week.

Thomas Frank: US liberals' hysteria outlives Trump. We should be so lucky, and not just because Frank's tombstone for Trump seems premature. While it may be peculiar that it took a clod as outrageous as Trump to finally "induce such fear and loathing among the nation's highly educated elite" when a long string of precursors should have tripped warning signs, I say better late than never. The lack of "hysteria" in response to Reagan and the Bushes was no shortage of provocation, but it's not just frogs and lobsters who realize too late that they're being cooked. (One can't quite say the same about Nixon. While some of his crimes took a while to be uncovered, and some have never been given the scrutiny they deserved, the media did a better job of paying attention at the time, probably because so many people were marching in the streets in protest -- a big part, uncredited by Frank, of the "downpour of denunciation" that has dogged Trump.) I just found this piece, and don't have time to give it the fine-toothed reading it deserves, but I will offer a couple notes. No doubt there have always been liberal intellectual snobs -- Thomas Jefferson qualifies, and he owned slaves; while his pen pal John Adams didn't, you'd be pressed to find a contemporary with a lower opinion of the unwashed masses -- the line Frank draws between the elite opponents of William Jennings Bryan, Franklin Roosevelt, and Trump blurs what really matters: Trump is feared and loathed not because he's a populist (which, as Frank knows as well as anyone, he isn't even remotely), but because he represents a monstrous threat, not to their elitism but to the very foundation of principles they hold dear: liberal democracy, and the belief that America's exceptional wealth and success is based on principles of freedom, fairness, and justice for all. Frank's heroes have always been populists, so he's extra-sensitive to intimations of snobbery from elites he's never trusted. And so he has little trouble finding dubious examples of "hysteria" that have thrown up at Trump, such as the Russia "scandals," the "attack on norms," the lectures on the "authoritarian" threats to democracy itself. I've been critical on that front as well, not out of any desire to give Trump a fair break, but because I doubt the efficacy of those charges. In particular, I don't think the two impeachments did any good, and I don't see the January 6 investigation as leading to anything worthwhile. On the other hand, I don't know how to convey to people just how disastrous the 40-year Reagan-Bush-Trump era has been. So I'm inclined to cut people who are basically on my side a little slack. They don't have to reason correctly, as long as they get to the right answer. [PS: h/t to Matt Taibbi for the link, even though he did it for the wrong reasons, to make the wrong point.]

Gregg Herkin: Five myths about the atomic bomb: Well, let's list them:

  1. The bomb ended the war.
  2. The bomb saved half a million lives.
  3. The only alternative to the bomb was an invasion of Japan.
  4. The Japanese were warned before the bomb was dropped.
  5. The bomb was timed to gain a diplomatic advantage over Russia and proved a "master card" in early Cold War politics.

The first four are adequately explained in the text. Most importantly, Herken emphasizes the fear in Japan of the Soviet Union's entry into the war. Japanese leadership had realized that they had lost the war well before August, 1945, and had actually approached Russia over possible surrender terms, which was one reason Stalin advanced the schedule for entering the war. (Another reason may have been the impending use of nuclear weapons, which Stalin was vaguely informed of by Truman in Potsdam, and knew more of through espionage.) The fifth point comes from Gar Alperovitz's 1965 book Atomic Diplomacy. I read the book shortly after it came out, and thought it had merit, but I've had doubts since. There certainly were factions within the American military and foreign policy apparatus that saw Russia and Communism as postwar rivals, and did what they could to pivot to confrontation, but they didn't become dominant until 1947-48, with the Berlin airlift, and more so in 1950, with the "fall" of China and the opening of the Korean War. I'd go so far as to count Leslie Groves, the general in charge of the Manhattan Project, as one of those factions. And there was a broader consensus that the US should become the dominant world power after the war, which would inevitably (not necessarily consciously) lead to conflict with the Soviet Union. George Kennan, who became the architect of the "containment policy," was one of them. On the other hand, Truman had not bought into any kind of containment policy, at least by Potsdam, where he lobbied Stalin to enter the war against Japan. For one thing, I doubt Truman (or anyone, except maybe Groves) had any real understanding about the power of nuclear weapons. Truman didn't even know about the Manhattan Project until FDR died and he became president. A lot of factors converged to create the Cold War, and no one was smart enough to figure them out ahead of time (not even Kennan, who thought he was). Meanwhile, for all its moral conceit, it was the United States (alone) who committed the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That should humble us. But it hasn't.

Michael Kazin: The Revolution That Wasn't: "Do we give the activist groups of the 1960s more credit than they deserve?" Well, yes and no, it all depends. As I've said many times, the fundamental arguments advanced by the New Left won broad acceptance and came to permeate American culture, but they didn't get organized into effective political power, which allowed the right to make gains, especially in the 1980s. There are lots of reasons for this. Arguably, we were too critical of establishment liberals, and too naive about the growing conservative movement. We were too indifferent to unions, and they -- especially after the Cold War purge of communist-sympathizers -- had become too reactionary. Or maybe it was just the corruptibility of a political system where both parties work full time to court donors. This is a review of a new book by David Talbot and Margaret Talbot: By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution, which naturally focuses overmuch on marginal groups that were attracted by the idea of countering violence with violence. Such groups burned out fast, with little to show for their wasted lives.

Ian Millhiser: Georgia Republicans didn't waste any time in using their new voter suppression law. This lays out the mechanics of how the law could work. The first step is to challenge the election board in Atlanta, in hopes of replacing it with a state-appointed supervisor (i.e., a Republican), who could disqualify challenged voters (e.g., Democrats). Georgia is close enough that it wouldn't take a lot of cheating to tip the state back to the Republicans. If there is any saving grace in this, it's that this particular method will be hard to hide, and will raise a storm of protest. I generally think that voter suppression attempts are likely to backfire, as they motivate the targets to work that much harder to vote. Still, the Republicans are waging a full court press all across the country to steal elections. For more on who's behind all this, see Jane Mayer: The Big Money Behind the Big Lie: "Donald Trump's attacks on democracy are being promoted by rich and powerful conservative groups that are determined to win at all costs." Also: Richard L Hasen: Trump Is Planning a Much More Respectable Coup Next Time.

Kim Phillips-Fein: The Liberals Who Weakened Trust in Government: "How public interest groups inadvertently aided the right's ascendency." Review of Paul Sabin: Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism. Focuses on "public interest groups" in the 1970s (especially consumers and environmentalists), who often found liberal governments in league with corporations, undermining popular faith in government as an agent for the people. How much this ultimately helped conservatives as they rose to political power in 1980 is hard to say. A major problem for Democrats was that as unions started to lose power, they gave up on trying to represent the broad working class and came to be viewed as just another special interest, leaving them to compete with other public and private interest groups. What is true is that Democrats undercut themselves with a series of fiascos (like Vietnam), and wound up turning to business to make up for waning union support. The result was long-term loss of credibility, not that they didn't try to blame that, too, on Ralph Nader.

Aaron Rupar: Why Newsmax is failing: Interview with Jason Campbell. Viewership of the "Trumpier-than-Fox" channel is down more than 50 percent from January (average 300,000 to 114,000).

Alex Shephard: The Media Is Too Clueless and Sensationalistic to Properly Explain Breakthrough Covid: Or, well, really, anything else. Maybe they're right that most people don't want to understand, but it's not like they give them a chance. The same basic complaint is aired in Kate Aronoff: Why Mainstream Media Struggles to Explain the Infrastructure Plan's Climate Spending.

David Wallace-Wells: 'We Could Have Prevented This': "The scientist Eric Topol on the Delta variant and its dangerous impact." According to the New York Times, new cases peaked on Jan. 8 at 259,616 (all figures 7-day averages), then declined more or less steadily to 10,608 on July 5), before increasing again to 96,036 on Aug. 4 (+131% 14-day change). There has, however, been a considerable drop in mortality (although deaths are up 65% over the last 14-days, still below any point after the initial spike in 2020). Key line here: "the age skew of the disease and the age skew of vaccine penetration, taken together, mean that the country as a whole has probably had at least 90 percent of its collective mortality risk eliminated through vaccines." Lots more info here. [Oh, by the way, in headlines that need no further comment: Matt Stieb: GOP Representative Suing Nancy Pelosi Over House Mask Mandate Gets COVID.]