Sunday, September 4, 2022

Speaking of Which

I made the point a while back that Trump only became leader of the Republican Party when he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016. Once he became viewed as a winner, all else was not merely forgiven but accepted as virtue. So when he lost in 2020, he should have been disposed of. But he came up with a clever way of escaping the trap: he declared himself the real winner, and most Republicans wound up falling back in line. After all, most Republicans are sheep, mired in a bubble of misinformation, and neither smart nor curious enough to think for themselves. With his "big lie," Trump has not only maintained his position as the leader of his party, he has kept himself in the spotlight continuously over the last two years -- mostly to get beaten up and humiliated even more, but professional Republicans are powerless to to stop him. They, after all, have become too complicit in his lies.

One result of this is that the 2022 elections are going to be a referendum not on Biden but on Trump. This is a huge difference from 2010. In 2008, Bush was even more unpopular than Trump was in 2020, but Bush basically went into hiding after leaving the White House, and two years later had been conveniently forgotten. Biden's record is arguably better in 2022 than Obama's was in 2010: both have presided over economic recoveries that could be better, and both have had legislative wins (although Obama's ACA was little appreciated at the time, partly because implementation was delayed). And give Biden credit for getting out of Afghanistan, where Obama got deeper in (but, at least, out of Iraq, although he got back in again later). But achievements like those don't seem to motivate voters, certainly not like fear and loathing. And let's face it: nobody in America elicits more fear and loathing than Trump.

But let's also note that Trump's onus has rubbed off on much of his party. And that's not just because the Big Lie and all the little liars who have dutifully lined up behind it has come to be viewed by so many as an assault on democracy as well as on the nation as a whole. And it's not just because the investigation and prosecution of January 6 has kept memory of those events from fading -- indeed, Trump's vow to pardon the rioters is a self-own, somewhere between Roosevelt's "I welcome their hate" of "economic royalists" and Napoleon crowning himself emperor. While Trump once could claim 80 million voters, the January 6 riot was just a few thousand fanatics, for which at most a few hundred have been charged with crimes. He's systematically belittling himself, all the while appearing even more ominous and abhorrent to the 85 million who voted him down in 2020.

While voters often remained confused about who is responsible for what, they got a crystal clear demonstrations of who the Republicans are when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. That's been a partisan crusade since the 1980s, and while Trump did the ultimate packing of the Court, the "trigger laws" that have snapped into place, depriving more than a third of Americans of a right that had been secure for 50 years, is purely the work of local Republicans. It remains to be seen whether Republicans will get the blame they deserve for dozens of other unpopular positions they have taken, let alone for the longer-term damage they've done to the economy and to society. Democrats have two more months to make those charges stick.

As for Trump himself, he more and more looks like a walking corpse. He may or may not get indicted, and possibly more than once. Unless he cops a plea, it will be hard to convict him, but the nicks and scrapes aren't likely to help him politically. He's too whiny and peevish to make much of a martyr, and the few who are inclined to see him as such aren't going to have much effect -- except perhaps through self-defeating acts of violence. If Democrats come out of the election stronger than before, his reputation as a winner will take a beating. We're already seeing articles like Nate Silver: [09-02] Why Trump's Presence in the Midterms Is Risky for the GOP. He may still announce a presidential run for 2024 -- it will be hard for him to resist a graft he has been cultivating ever since leaving office -- but I doubt he'll make it to Iowa or New Hampshire, let alone sweep the primaries. He's no longer the outsider he campaigned as in 2016. And he's no longer the winner. While others will seek his blessing, carry his colors, and promise to finally deliver on his vision of Make America Great Again™, no one else is likely to duplicate his clown show, and few (other than the idiot press) will miss the drama.

Facebook tells me that today is Mary McDonough Harren's birthday. Alas, she is no longer with us, and greatly missed.

Natalie Schachar: [09-02] Barbara Ehrenreich, Explorer of Prosperity's Dark Side, Dies at 81. This reads more like a profile than an obituary, including the quote: "So to me, sitting at a desk all day was not only a privilege but a duty: something I owed to all those people in my life, living and dead, who'd had so much more to say than anyone ever got to hear." I figure her as the most important writer the American left has produced. Everyone else who comes to mind filled some niche or other, but she ranged everywhere, and the few subjects she missed were ones we were waiting for her to weigh in on. In 2016, when sensible people were searching for books to explain how it was possible Trump won, few looked back as far as her 1989 Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class. That was probably my introduction, followed by The Worst Years of Our Lives, a title she spent on the 1980s when even worse years were still to come. I imagine that The American Health Empire (1971) and her explicitly feminist works from the 1970s are a bit dated, but wouldn't be surprised to find otherwise. Blood Rites was a wholly original take on war, Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch introduced many of us to the hard work of poverty, Dancing in the Streets offered joy, and Bright-Sided told us not to get too obsessed with it. I read her primer on dying, Natural Causes, earlier this year, and found it reassuring, as she no doubt intended. Too bad I missed the memoir, subtitled A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything, which could double as mine. Something to live for.

Kate Aronoff: [08-23] Made-in-America Electric Cars: Good in Theory but a Complicated Mess in Practice: That's what you get when you try to do two things at once. Biden is starting to move away from free market globalization (which has stripped America of most manufacturing jobs) to a national economic policy that brings manufacturing jobs back. That makes the switch to electric cars harder and more expensive, but it's as good a place to start the policy as any.

Also on electric cars:

Ross Barkan: [08-29] Don't Mock the Payroll Protection Program: Sure, it was an easy reach when Republicans reacted hysterically to Biden's student loan order, especially given that lightning rods Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene were on the list of major beneficiaries of PPP loan forgiveness. But the program was one of a number of measures that helped people get through the early days of pandemic lockdown. Not every measure has to help everyone, and not every measure has to help the poorest of the poor. Forgiving student loans is effectively middle-class relief: the rich don't need it, and the poor can't use it, but for people in the middle it makes a lot of difference. PPP was more of an upper-middle-class program, but it was packaged with things like supplemented unemployment benefits that helped more people. Farm supports only directly help a small population, but they help keep food plentiful for the rest of us. Bank bailouts only obviously help filthy rich bankers, but they can be justified for keeping businesses open and running. (I don't quite buy that, but that's an argument that reasonable people who care about more than bankers can accept.)

I've long hated when people decry business supports as "corporate welfare." Welfare should be thought of as a good thing, something we all deserve more of. The preamble of the U.S. Constitution declared that the reason we have and should want a federal government is "to promote the general Welfare." The art of politics is maintaining a balance that benefits most of the people most of the time. The practice of politics tries to break this asunder, favoring some interests at the expense of others, and in its most degenerate form disfavoring others out of pure spite (or a misguided belief in zero-sum games). Republicans these days offer many examples of such degeneracy. We shouldn't emulate them.

Kim Bellware/Alex Horton: [09-02] VA plans to offer abortions for veterans regardless of state laws. This looks like an important policy change, and a brave one under the circumstances. Still doesn't go as far as an idea I thought of long ago: making VA centers available for abortions for all women, regardless of military affiliation. I liked the idea because it would be almost impossible to set up the sort of gauntlets women often have to pass through to get to clinics (at least that's the case here in Wichita). Related background: Alex Horton/Rachel Roubein: [07-29] Abortion ruling will worsen military personnel crisis, Pentagon says.

Daniel Davis: [08-29] The Real Problem With Biden's Afghanistan Withdrawal: It Came 10 Years Too Late. Or earlier still, but Davis's perspective was formed by serving in Afghanistan in 2010-11 ("at the height of Petraeus's Afghan surge"), which clearly proved that the US was not going to escalate its way to a satisfactory solution, but still had some leverage to negotiate with.


  • Gil Barndollar/Jason Dempsey: [09-02] Don't Believe the Generals: "Afghanistan was a lost war long before last year's final withdrawal." The authors served in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2014, which is the critical window for understanding that there was nothing the US could do in Afghanistan that had any chance of working. Before that you could make excuses like "we dropped the ball" by rushing into Iraq, imagining that focus would help, that you could find better Afghan leaders than Karzai, that you could get more help from Pakistan, etc. Instead, all focus meant was more firepower, and that failed for all to see.

  • Jacob Batinga: [09-01] Sanctions are Destructive, Illegitimate, and Totally Bipartisan: "Destitution should not be a tool of U.S. foreign policy." I filed this under Afghanistan following the photo, but destitution is a tool (actually, a weapon) the U.S. has used many times, pretty much never with its advertised effect.

Last week I followed Tariq Ali's Churchill: His Times, His Crimes, with The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold, a slim volume compiled from previous essays. They're a little scattershot, but his insights and speculations have proven remarkably solid. Perhaps the best part is his background and analysis of the Russian intervention in 1979 and its 10-year occupation, which like the US invasion in 2001 he viewed as doomed from the start.

Connor Echols: [08-26] Diplomacy Watch: Will six months of war turn into six years? This weekly report came out before Ukraine announced its offensive in the Kherson region, but once again has no progress to report. As for the offensive: Against fierce resistance, Ukraine makes small gains in the south near Kherson. Or so they say.

More on Ukraine:

  • Connor Echols: [09-02] Diplomacy Watch: Did Boris Johnson help stop a peace deal in Ukraine?

  • Jan Cienski: [09-02] Energy war erupts as Putin and the West clash over oil and gas: The G7 thinks they can starve Russia's war effort by capping the price they pay for Russian oil and gas. I don't see how that can work, or why anyone thinks it can.

  • Blaise Malley: [09-01] Can the Quincy Institute Survive Putin's War? This is a rehash of Joe Cirincione's resignation, who felt the "transpartisan" think tank (backed by Koch and Soros money) wasn't sufficiently anti-Putin. I've found their Responsible Statecraft website to be a dependable source for sanity, one I've cited often in these pages (especially the work of resident expert Anatol Lieven and "Diplomacy Watch" reporter Connor Echols. No one there doubts that Putin is responsible for the war, and that his armed intervention deserves to be beaten back. On the other hand, they acknowledge the history that led to the conflict. And most importantly, they recognize that continuing the war only adds to the harms already inflicted. And they realize that the only way out is through negotiation, which they correctly criticize both sides for shirking.

  • Geoffrey Roberts: [08-26] Are these hawks really calling for a preventative war? Well, not exactly. As I understand it, they're saying that we don't need to worry about the war with Russia -- and they're really thinking of this as America's war to defeat Russia, not just to help Ukraine defend itself -- going nuclear, because Putin will always back down when faced with America's nuclear deterrent. Hence, we should send even more dangerous and provocative weapons to Ukraine. But while they are hawks and seek to extend the war, I don't see any reason to call it "preventative": the war is already ongoing, started by Putin when he invaded Ukraine beyond the breakaway regions. Still, the "preventative war" mindset does appear to be operative here: that's how Putin described his invasion. But the term isn't even an oxymoron; it's a self-negation. No one ever prevents a war by starting one.

  • Ravil Maganov is the eighth Russian oil executive to die under mysterious circumstances since the war begun.

Nick French: [09-03] US Life Expectancy Has Declined Again. Neoliberalism and Antidemocratic Rule Are to Blame. The more obvious reason is Covid-19, but it's hit the US much harder than most relatively well-off countries. Plus there's guns, opiates, car wrecks (which St Clair reports are twice as likely to be fatal in the US as in other countries like France and Canada). But sure, having a health care system that is better at making money than saving lives is part of the story. And putting prices on everything ensures that unprofitable people will suffer.

Tareq S Hajjaj: [09-01] Israel's 'Operation Breaking Dawn' killed 49 Palestinians. These are their stories. All wars should be reported like this. All war supporters should be read these reports. Note that the absence of any Israelis profiled is because none died in this particular bit of slaughter.

Jacob Heilbrunn: [08-28] Trumpism Before Trump: "How a small group of reactionaries hijacked the Republican Party -- decades before the 2016 election." Lead photo: Newt Gingrich. Review of Nicole Hemmer: Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. Dana Milbank's recent The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party covers the same ground.

Alex Henderson: [08-26] Moderna sues two competitors for 'patent infringement' over COVID vaccine technology. Patents are basically a license to steal from the public. By claiming whole swathes of technology, they also inhibit further development of that technology. And when they're applied retroactively, the entire market gets blindsided. The whole racket should be demolished -- as indeed it only exists because political laws have been enacted to favor private interests.

Umair Irfan: [08-31] Why Covid-19 death rates remain stubbornly flat. A little over 400 per day, which would add up to 150,000 for the year: offhand, that's about as many people as die from guns, drug overdoses, and auto accidents combined, which are the three non-disease statistics that routinely outrage various people.

Ben Jacobs: [09-02] Biden defended democracy -- and pounced on a political opportunity: "The goal was to make 'MAGA Republicans' a label for everything that voters find politically toxic about the GOP right now." Biden gave a prime time political speech that quite rightly called out Republicans as a threat to democracy. He tried to limit blame to a subset of the party defined by their blind loyalty to Trump, and phrased that in terms just short of name-calling. I'm not much for broad labels, but one needs some way of making the point that electing Republicans will cost you rights, including the right to fair elections in the future, and impose other hardships. Biden's trying to be gentle about this, leaving a lot of room for Republicans to distance themselves from the most extreme elements of their party, but few of them will give him any respect for the effort. And frankly, I'm not sure coddling them is worth the effort. The Republican Party is designed to ratchet ever further to the right, so you can see where they're going, and should be alarmed. Of course, Republicans are reacting hysterically (reminds me of the old lawyering advice: if you have the facts, pound the facts; if you have the law, pound the law; if you have neither, pound the table).

Benji Jones: [08-30] How melting glaciers fueled Pakistan's fatal floods: "Pakistan has more than 7,000 glaciers. Climate change is melting them into floodwater." For more on Pakistan's floods, see St Clair, below; also:

Benji Jones: [08-31] How Jackson, Mississippi, ran out of water: A massive flood pushed an already stressed system over the brink. Why was it stressed? You know. If you don't, see Krugman, below.

Ed Kilgore: [09-01] Rick Scott Wants Mitch McConnell to Be 'Cheerleader' for Bad Candidates: Over at FiveThirtyEight Republicans are still favored 75-25 to take control of the House, but their Senate prospects have dwindled to 32-68. That's because Republicans have nominated some really bad Senate candidates, although it's quite possible they just don't know yet how bad Republican House candidates are: they just don't get as much polling and media attention (except for Sarah Palin, who just lost a "safe" R seat in Alaska). McConnell's is Republican leader in the Senate, and (whatever else you may think of him) a shrewd judge of whatever he can get away with, at least with respect to the Washington media bubble. He knows that he can get away with more as Majority Leader than as Minority Leader, and he sees chances of that are slipping away, so he's taken discreet steps to cover his ass. Scott is a MAGA fanatic, who was made head of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee (with McConnell's approval, no doubt), figuring the time was ripe for his brand of aggression. Democrats should hang Scott's manifesto on the neck of every Republican candidate this year, but in the meantime Republicans are hanging themselves. I don't normally like to get into retail politics here, but a few more examples:

Anatol Lieven: [08-30] The tragedy of Mikhail Gorbachev: Dead at 91, the last President and General Secretary of the Soviet Union, often blamed for its demise, but rarely credited for the reforms he intended, and almost universally eschewed by later Russian voters. His reforms were readily embraced by other Communist nations -- except North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, whose defenses had been hardened by American sanctions, and China, which moved quickly to strangle Glasnost in its crib, while introducing more effective economic reforms. (It's worth recalling that China reacted with similar horror to Krushchev's de-Stalinization.) Gorbachev's Wikipedia page makes reference to him being "committed to preserving the Soviet State and its socialist ideals." The tragedy there is how few of his followers -- nearly all high-ranking functionaries in the Party -- retained any socialist ideals at all. Most, including Boris Yeltsin, shifted effortlessly to kleptocracy, some not even bothering to dress it up as a form of democracy.


Anatol Lieven: [08-30] There's a good chance Liz Truss's Ukraine, China policy will be worse: "She is expected to win the contest for PM next week but no matter who's in the role, the Brits will continue to follow Washington anywhere." Sounds like a distinction without a difference, but that seems to happen a lot with conservatives. I'm not surprised that Britain has their own security think tanks, but I hadn't heard of the Henry Jackson Society, named after the longtime "Senator from Boeing."

Sarah Mervosh: [09-01] The Pandemic Erased Two Decades of Progress in Math and Reading: "The results of a national test showed just how devastating the last two years have been for 9-year-old schoolchildren, especially the most vulnerable." As someone with decidedly mixed views of education, I'm tempted to point out that the skill they lost most on was test taking, that reading and math are the most intensely tested subjects. I suspect most students should be able to make that up in fairly short course. But I also suspect that what was really lost was something in short supply already: personal attention. There is a lot of debate these days on what school is and should be; e.g., see the New York Times series What Is School For? I haven't read through all of this yet, but the first section I clicked on was Care, which was probably the first thing sacrificed (if indeed it was much provided; in my day it wasn't).

Ian Millhiser: [08-31] The 4 major criminal probes into Donald Trump, explained: This piece has been around for several weeks, but keeps getting updated, so works as a general introduction.

For more on Trump and his tribulations:

Samuel Moyn: [08-31] 'Sweeping' DoD plan to mitigate civilian harm merely humanizes endless war. This sounds like it may be different from the more conventional defense of "humanitarian war," which admits to killing people but in order to achieve some "greater good" -- a nebulous theory that some neoliberals love to push but never seems to work out right. So most likely this is seen as a corrective against the "take the gloves off" mantra of the Bush-Cheney years. But civilian harm is inevitable given the way the US military is trained, and recent attempts to throttle it have failed (e.g., McChrystal's short reign in Afghanistan, which was abandoned not because it didn't work but because American soldiers revolted against the restraints). Moyn has a recent book along these lines, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.

Lindsay Owens/David Dayen: [08-31] Why Obama-Era Economists Are So Mad About Student Debt Relief: "It exposes their failed mortgage debt relief policies after the Great Recession." Of course, we've largely buried the memory of those programs, ignoring why they didn't work, and concluding we didn't need them after all. While the Biden policy is much better designed -- for debtors that is, where mortgage debt relief was actually aimed at helping banks -- there are still "a lot of ways the government can mess this up. See Dayen's [08-30] Implementing Student Debt Relief Is Critical.

Mitchell Plitnick: [09-02] Rebutting AIPAC's case for war with Iran. Aside from inflicting random acts of terror upon Iran, I don't see an actual war plan here. Israel doesn't have the proximity of logistics, let alone the numbers, to defeat Iran. Iraq, much better positioned, fought an 8-year war against Iran, and really just for border lands, and failed. In theory the US could launch something from its Persian Gulf crony petrostates, but they're pretty exposed to reprisals, in many cases literally living in glass houses. A US return to Iraq and/or Afghanistan (or for that matter Pakistan) expressly as a base against Iran wouldn't be tolerated. And while the US (or for that matter Israel) can nuke Iran back past the stone age, how will that play when the radiation cloud wafts past India and China and across the Pacific to America? It's hard to think of anything more disgraceful. So why? To stop JCPOA? That agreement delivers exactly what Israel campaigned for before it was signed, except without the gratuitous fireworks that warmongers see as necessary and self-validating. Since the US can't win a war with Iran, wouldn't we be better off learning to live with a world we cannot change?

More on Iran:

  • Richard Falk: [09-02] To Renew or Not to Renew the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement, That is the Question. Nothing other than a treaty with verification can do the job. Anything else simply dares Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Trump trashed a treaty that had been working as planned purely as a sop to Israeli (and possibly Saudi) political interests, and offered nothing to replace it. Biden supposedly wants to restore the treaty, but not at the expense of normalizing or in any way improving relations with Iran. As I noted above, there is no practical alternative. To pretend that Iran is a country the US can continue snubbing forever without suffering any consequences is delusional, yet such delusions are rarely even challenged in Washington.

Jeffrey St Clair: [09-02] Roaming Charges: Losing It: Opens with a terrifying section on the floods in Pakistan (including a satellite picture that takes a while to sink in).

Let me close with this quote from Daniel P.B. Smith, scraped from Facebook, on Trump's cache of secret files:

My theory is that he had completely disorganized piles of mixed-up stuff, including top secret stuff he could show to visitors to impress them with what a big-shot he was [and] how great the US was. If he has photos of Macron in flagrante delicto I can easily see him showing them to everyone.

And that the reason all that stuff went to Mar-a-Lago was not that he is selling it to the Russians, but that his staffers were constantly trying and failing to grab stuff back from him and get it filed back in the proper place. When the time came to move Trump out of the residence at the White House, they suddenly found dozens of boxes with top secret files mixed up with flattering newspaper clippings. "My god, there is no way in hell we can sort this out now. If we leave it here, we could get in trouble ourselves. As well as embarrassing Trump by exposing his childishness and gross mismanagement. The only thing to do is to box it all up quickly, get it the hell out of here, and tell him to hide it at Mar-a-Lago and keep it hidden no matter what."

And the reason why Trump obstructed attempts by the Archives to get them back is that he has occupational defiant disorder, and wouldn't give them back for no better reason than that they asked. Plus that he has enough of a clue to realize that his habit of mixing up documents was something he could get away with while he was still President, but would embarrass him now that he wasn't surrounded by people to cover for him.

That he's embarrassed by what a mess they are in is shown by his accusing the DOJ of spreading out documents on the floor in order to make it look as if Trump had done it.

Heck, the dozens of empty "Top Secret" folders are probably empty because he went through them, didn't find anything that interested him, and tore them in quarters to show he had finished looking at them.

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