Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Shutdown Chicken


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In the game of “chicken,” two people — usually teenage boys with more testosterone than brains — face off at opposite ends of a deserted road, start their cars and literally drive at each other. If they’re lucky, one of them, the “chicken,” swerves his car out of the way of the other before they crash, with the “winner” who didn’t swerve getting to keep both cars. If they’re not so lucky, they crash into each other and end up dead or severely injured.
The current partial shutdown of the U.S. government, which as I write this (Wednesday, January 23) is at 33 days and counting, is like a game of “chicken” between President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It really began in early December, after the midterm elections that gave the Democrats control of half of Congress but before the January 3 date set for the new House of Representatives actually to convene. President Trump called Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democratic minority in the U.S. Senate, to his office and, with TV cameras in the room, loudly and seemingly proudly proclaimed that he was “glad” to shut down the government if that’s what it took to get $5.7 billion dollars to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump promised that he wouldn’t blame the shutdown, if it came to pass, on the Democrats — a promise that, like most of Trump’s promises, he quickly broke. It seemed for a few days as if a shutdown could be at least temporarily averted when the U.S. Senate passed, 100 to zero, a bill to keep the government open for three months while the two big parties continued negotiations over how to secure the border and whether to build a wall. The House, still in Republican hands, balked and instead passed a bill to keep the government open that included the wall money. Trump, who had promised to sign the Senate bill if the House passed it and sent it to his desk, then reneged after a firestorm of criticism from Right-wing media figures Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham accused him of selling out his political base and winning no concessions from the Democrats in exchange.
It didn’t help that the shutdown broke just as Congress was recessing for the holidays and its members were flying home. Washington usually shuts down voluntarily for Christmas and New Year’s, and 2018 was no exception. At one point Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, threatened to invoke the “nuclear option” and end the two centuries-old tradition of the Senate filibuster so he could pass the House bill, including the wall funding, with the 51-member (now 53-member since the Republicans gained two Senate seats in the 2018 election — which is why I called it “not a blue wave so much as a blue ripple”) Republican Senate majority. But he didn’t; instead he waited until the Democrats took over the House on schedule January 3 and announced that he would not allow the Senate to vote on any bill until he had a signed, sealed and delivered pledge that Trump would allow it to become law.
The shutdown has ground on since then. Over 800,000 federal workers have so far missed two paychecks. FBI agents are organizing food drives for other FBI agents. Trump’s budget director said that the workers should look on it as “a vacation” even though they’re not getting vacation pay, and about half of them — people like Border Patrol agents and Transportation Security Agency airport screeners — have been deemed “essential,” meaning at least in theory that the government can force them to continue to work but doesn’t have to pay them. To me that sounds an awful lot like the “involuntary servitude” the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was supposed to have banned, along with slavery — and indeed I’ve seen one report that a group of “essential” federal workers were planning to sue the government for their money on precisely that ground.
It became pretty obvious early on in the issue discussions that the shutdown was over quite a lot more than a policy dispute over how to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump made the promise to build a wall across the entire 2,000-mile border a centerpiece of his campaign, and it’s now become not only a symbol of the kind of America he wants — deeply suspicious of outsiders, as economically, militarily and politically self-sufficient as possible, and governed by white men with women and people of color “knowing their place” — but a monument to himself, the last and greatest Trump real-estate development. As for the Democrats, it’s become about ego for them, too; in her first public statements after the Democrats retook the House and elected Pelosi Speaker for the second time, Pelosi called Trump’s wall an “immorality.”
That was an awfully high card for Pelosi to play that early in the game. Political issues usually can be negotiated and compromised; moral issues can’t. That’s why the U.S. Civil War happened; both sides were convinced that they had the moral high ground. As U.S. President-elect Abraham Lincoln wrote to Alexander Stephens, later vice-president of the Confederacy, in December 1860, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.” More recently we’ve seen activists on both sides of the moral, political and social divides in this country invoke basic moral principles — the Left in the 1960’s in favor of civil rights and against the war in Viet Nam, the Right more recently in opposition to abortion and Queer rights.
By calling Trump’s border wall not merely bad policy — an ineffective boondoggle that will not solve the problems of undocumented immigration, crime and drugs Trump says it will — but “an immorality,” Pelosi staked out a position as intractable and uncompromisable as Trump. And so far she’s been able to keep the House Democrats in line with her. The conventional wisdom is that she’s “winning” the political battle over Trump because polls show a majority of respondents blaming the Republicans in general and Trump in particular for the shutdown.
But what if that changes? If the shutdown goes on for much longer, and the media are filled with more and more horror stories of federal workers having to sacrifice their homes, their children’s health care, and ultimately even their lives (one recent report described a woman who has to choose between paying her rent and paying for her cancer chemotherapy), the U.S. population is likely to shift to blaming both sides for the shutdown and demanding that they reach some sort of compromise before their two cars crash into each other and damage not only themselves but millions of Americans who elected a government to work together and get things done for them, not call each other names and engage in petty squabbles reminiscent of grade-schoolers fighting in a schoolyard during recess.
Indeed, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats got a big fat warning in a recent Civiqs poll showing Pelosi’s favorability rating as 35 percent favorable to 50 percent unfavorable. Trump, in the same poll, did even worse, but that shouldn’t give Pelosi and the Democrats much comfort. When the Democrats won back control of the House in the midterms, the question many pundits were raising was what would they do with it. Would they pass a series of bills to guarantee and improve people’s access to health care — the biggest issue on which they won — and institute other party priorities like infrastructure and a significant response to global climate change? Or would they spend most of their time launching investigations into the endemic corruption of the Trump administration?
Thanks to the shutdown, Democrats have been able to do neither. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who won her House seat by beating a top member of the Democratic House leadership in a primary, told Stephen Colbert on January 22, neither she nor any other of the House’s new members have ever served during a period in which the government wasn’t shut down. In that sense the Republicans have already “won” the shutdown; they still control 2 ½ branches of the federal government (the Presidency, the Senate and the Supreme Court) and they’ve been able to neutralize their opposition in the one-half of one branch of government they don’t still command.
It has taken a full month for any hints that either party might be willing to be the first to swerve in this bizarre game of political “chicken.” On January 21 President Trump offered a so-called compromise by which in exchange for his $5.7 billion in wall funding he’d guarantee three years’ protection for the so-called “Dreamers,” children born outside the U.S. who were brought here by their undocumented immigrant parents. The Democrats were already skeptical when Trump made the announcement — they were hoping that the courts, who have already put on hold Trump’s cancellation of the Delayed Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program former President Barack Obama put in place by executive order, would finally force Trump to abide by Obama’s program — and vice-president Mike Pence replied that even if the DACA recipients win in the lower courts, the Republican-packed U.S. Supreme Court is likely to do Trump’s bidding and declare the program unconstitutional.
Democrats were even more united against the President’s so-called “compromise” offer when they looked at the fine print in the bill and saw Trump and the anti-immigrant hardliners in his administration had sneaked in language drastically curtailing the ability of people from other countries to apply for asylum in the U.S. It called to mind a deal Trump and the Democrats almost reached last year, when in exchange for full protection, including a pathway to U.S. citizenship, for the “Dreamers” they offered Trump the full $25 billion he had estimated the border wall would cost (though undoubtedly it would go quite a bit higher — up to $100 billion — in predictable cost overruns if it were actually authorized and built). Trump sent signals he’d accept the deal and then reneged, insisting that it also contain drastic cutbacks in legal immigration.
The cutbacks in legal immigration are what Trump is really after on the issue. Like other Republicans, Trump sees that the demographic changes in the U.S. are boosting the share of the country’s population that are likely to vote Democrat: women, people of color, young people, poor people. The Republicans have responded not by trying to broaden the appeal of their party to these groups but by an extensive campaign of voter suppression, gerrymandering election districts, rigging the census so non-Republican populations will be undercounted, and pushing a revival of the 1924 immigration bill (whose supporters pushed it through Congress with openly racist arguments) that slashed legal immigration and set up a quota system that ensured most documented U.S. immigrants would come from white-majority countries.
It’s not “illegal” immigration that Trump and the Republicans hate; it’s immigration, period — especially immigration from Latin America and what Trump calls “shithole” Black-majority countries like Haiti and Nigeria. The wall proposal may have started, as some New York Times reporters have suggested, as merely a memory device invented by Trump’s campaign handlers and speechwriters to make sure he emphasized the immigration issue in all his campaign appearances. But it’s become much more than that. It’s become a symbol of the new exclusionary America he wants to build — a reversal of the Statue of Liberty and its “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” inscription representing the old, inclusionary America. It’s become the monument Trump wants to leave behind, the fact on the ground for which history will remember him and mark the philosophical, historical and ideological distinction between pre-Trump and post-Trump America.
And, for a man who’s been president of the United States for two years and a candidate for that office a year and a half before that but still considers himself a
It’s not just businessman, and thinks of the presidency largely as a way to make more money for himself and his friends, the wall is also a money-making opportunity. As a builder in New York City, Trump had to deal with the Mafia — the real one — which controls most of the contractors in the city and most of the labor unions which supposedly represent their workers. You don’t do as many real-estate deals as Trump has without cozying up to the Mob big-time. And, as Craig Unger noted in his book House of Trump, House of Putin, Trump has been in bed with the Russian Mafia at least since the 1980’s, when Russian mobsters bailed him out by buying units in New York’s Trump Tower and his other buildings as ways to launder their money.
For a man who sees everything as a profit-making opportunity, Trump is no doubt at least partly eyeing the wall as a way he can pay back all the big-money interests, including the crooks in both the Italian-American and Russian Mafias, who financed his private developments and his presidential campaign. It’s a way of making sure Trump, who’s been through at least four corporate bankruptcies, will ensure that the crooks — the sort of people who have been called “the kinds of people you cannot owe money to” — who helped him as a real-estate tycoon and who quite possibly brokered the deals between Trump’s people and the Russian government to win him the presidency in the first place — will get the largesse they’re expecting at the expense of the American taxpayer (now that it’s dawned on even Trump’s thick head that Mexico is not paying for the wall).
And there’s one other reason Trump wants the wall so badly he’s willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of millions of Americans (both the 800,000-plus federal workers who are directly affected and the hundreds of thousands of people who work for private contractors that do business with the government and are not going to be made whole, as the federal workers themselves are likely to be, once the shutdown ends) to get it funded. He wants to deal the Democrats a humiliating defeat and send the message that, no matter how the American people vote, they are going to be governed by his and the Republican Party’s priorities.
It’s not just Donald Trump. As George Packer noted in a December 14, 2018 article posted on the Web site of The Atlantic, “The Corruption of the Republican Party” (, the GOP as an institution has fundamentally rejected democracy in the service of an ideological agenda. When they lost gubernatorial elections in North Carolina in 2016 and Michigan and Wisconsin in 2018, the Republican legislative majorities in those states simply rewrote the laws to strip the newly elected Democratic governors of as many powers as they could. As Packer wrote:

Taking away democratic rights—extreme gerrymandering; blocking an elected president from nominating a Supreme Court justice; selectively paring voting rolls and polling places; creating spurious anti-fraud commissions; misusing the census to undercount the opposition; calling lame-duck legislative sessions to pass laws against the will of the voters—is the Republican Party’s main political strategy, and will be for years to come.
Republicans have chosen contraction and authoritarianism because, unlike the Democrats, their party isn’t a coalition of interests in search of a majority. Its character is ideological. The Republican Party we know is a product of the modern conservative movement, and that movement is a series of insurgencies against the established order.

As historian Leonard Schapiro wrote of the Bolshevik (later Communist) Party that took over in Russia after the 1917 revolution(s), today’s Republicans are “a minority determined to rule alone.” Their disinclination even to treat Democratic legislators as a legitimate opposition, let alone as equals, was shown when Trump allowed Republican Senators to hold private meetings with Attorney General nominee William Barr but said that “because of the shutdown” Democrats in the Senate would not be similarly privileged.
It’s been noted by a lot of people, including former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res, that Trump’s attitude towards deal-making — the subject of the best-selling book he wrote (or which at least was credited to him on its cover) — is not working out an arrangement that is mutually satisfactory to both. It’s using every bit of leverage he can garner to crush and humiliate his opposition totally. That is what Trump is after in the government shutdown: he wants to force the Democrats to back down on a position that’s very important both to the Democratic leaders themselves and to their political base.
And he’s likely to get his wish. Trump has one huge advantage over the Democrats: they genuinely care whether the government functions properly and whether its workers get paid. He couldn’t care less about that. The character of the Republican ideology is for a government that does as little as possible in the economic sphere — just national defense, criminal justice and a civil lawsuit system to resolve disputes between rich people — and especially doesn’t tax the rich to pay for social services for the not-rich.

As the tales of suffering among federal workers mount, as more and more Americans who don’t work for the government are also harmed by the shutdown, and as the shutdown itself looks more and more like a tit-for-tat routine (Pelosi bans Trump from delivering the State of the Union address in the House chamber, and Trump bans her from taking a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan), there will be far more pressure on the Democrats than the Republicans to end it. This is why I predict the shutdown will end with a total public victory for Trump: he’ll get his wall money, he’ll humiliate the Democrats and he will have effectively neutralized the threat a House of Representatives nominally controlled by the other party could have posed for him.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Midterms: The Blue Ripple


Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The mountain labored, and brought forth not so much a blue wave as a blue ripple. The United States had a midterm election more or less on Tuesday, November 6 — exactly one week ago as I start writing this. I say “more or less” because thanks to at least some states expanding opportunities for voting — early voting, voting by mail, absentee voting, turning already filled-out and sealed ballots on election day without having to use the polls, and “provisional ballots” if your eligibility or the currency of your registration is being challenged but you want to vote anyway — the election started well before that date and at this writing is still going on in some jurisdictions. Ballots are still coming in — many from U.S. servicemembers stationed overseas and understandably anxious to have a voice in who’s going to decide what battles in which countries they fight, and therefore whether they live or die — and a surprising number of senatorial, gubernatorial and congressional races are still “too close to call” and are being subjected to mandatory recounts.
Indeed, for me the biggest single aspect summing up the midterms is just how close many of the results were. In states ranging from Florida and Georgia to California and Arizona, we didn’t even come close to knowing on election night who had won. It’s become a cliché to say that modern America is “a divided country,” but what the closeness of this month’s election indicates is how evenly divided it is. Both major political parties had heavily energized, motivated electorates eager to turn out either to ensure continued Republican dominance of the entire federal government or to short-circuit it by giving Democrats a majority in at least half of Congress (and “flipping” some state governorships and legislatures as well), resulting in what one report says was the biggest turnout for a midterm since 1914.
The result was neither the “blue wave” the Democrats were hopefully predicting through much of the campaign season nor the “red wave” Donald Trump and the Republicans said they were expecting. Trump said that the election would be about “Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense,” and in a way he was right. The U.S. Senate’s confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a justice of the Supreme Court and the heavy-duty cultural anxieties it aroused — especially when Democratic Senators brought forth women who claimed Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted them decades before — closed the voter enthusiasm gap that had previously run in the Democrats’ favor and probably helped cost red-state Democratic Senators like Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota their seats.
Notably, the way Trump and the Republicans handled the sexual allegations against Kavanaugh by portraying a vote for Republicans as a vote against the “#MeToo” movement helped Republicans by widening the gender gap in the electorate. Throughout the summer polls had indicated that Democrats were doing 25 percent better than Republicans among women, but Republicans were doing 4 percent better among men. The Kavanaugh controversy, and the way Trump and other Republicans (including Maine Senator Susan Collins, who as I noted in my article about Kavanaugh immeasurably helped the case against “#MeToo” by essentially saying, “Look, I’m a woman, and I don’t ‘believe the women’ either!”) presented him as an innocent victim of reverse-sexist harpies, energized male voters and widened the Republican margin among men to 12 points.
The midterms revealed the existence of two Americas of roughly equal size. As I’m writing this, estimates indicate that Democrats won the so-called “generic vote” for the House of Representatives by between 7 and 9 points, a substantial majority but hardly the landslide they were hoping for. The election aftermath has also revealed just how unscrupulous the Republicans have become, to the extent that one has to question whether the modern-day Republican Party really accepts the basic principles of democracy — including “one person, one vote” and the belief that elections are supposed to settle who gets to wield governmental power. As Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in the 2018 afterword to What Happened, her memoir of the 2016 Presidential campaign (a book I happened to be reading during the final stages of the midterm campaign):

In 1995, one out of every 16 Americans was open to the option of military rule in our country, which I find to be a shockingly high number. In 2014, one out of six Americans felt that way. Even harder to believe, the numbers are worse for young people. According to Yascha Mounk, a lecturer on government at Harvard, nearly a quarter of millennials think democracy is a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country. In 2011, almost half said they thought that a political system with a strong leader who didn’t have to bother with Congress or elections was a “fairly good” or “very good” idea.

The increasing support among Americans in general, and Republicans in particular, for authoritarian politics was evident in 2016 when President Trump and his surrogates — including his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI — not only denounced Hillary Clinton as corrupt but called out at their rallies, “Lock her up!” A lot of people in the media and elsewhere pointed out that arresting, convicting and imprisoning their political enemies is what dictators, not democratically elected leaders, do. But we’ve heard “Lock her up!” since directed against U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who as the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings brought up Christine Blasey Ford’s charges against him. And more recently Republican protesters in Florida have chanted “Lock her up!” against Brenda Snipes, the registrar of voters in Broward County.
President Trump, who famously during one of his 2016 debates with Clinton said he would accept the election results “if I win,” has been screaming “voter fraud” at the closeness of the recounts in Florida and also in Georgia (which also has an African-American Democratic candidate for governor trailing a white Republican opponent by a slim margin). Trump tweeted, “The Florida Election should be called in favor of [Republicans] Rick Scott [for Senate] and Ron DeSantis [for governor] in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible — ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”
He also said the Arizona Senate race — won by Democrat Kyrsten Sinema against Republican Martha McSally by about 1.5 percent after McSally led in election night tallies — was so corrupt there ought to be a new election. Indeed, Trump is reported to have been angry at McSally for not screaming voter fraud and demanding a reversal of the poll results. Instead, McSally filmed a concession speech on video sitting on a couch with her dog, in which she wished Sinema well. What’s more, both McSally and Sinema invoked the spirit of John McCain, the late Republican Senator from Arizona and Barack Obama’s general-election opponent for President in 2008, as a sort of icon of political fairness and responsibility.
This kind of post-election sportsmanship is something we used to take for granted. It acknowledged that however hard-fought elections might be, and however strong the differences between candidates on how the country should be led, people on both sides wanted what was best for the country and put the welfare of the nation over partisan advantage. President Obama put it well when he delivered the eulogy for John McCain at his funeral — an event to which McCain, on his deathbed, pointedly insisted that President Trump not be invited to — when he said that, though he and McCain had fought a tough battle against each other in the 2008 election and continued to disagree thereafter, “We never doubted the other man’s sincerity or the other man’s patriotism, or that when all was said and done, we were on the same team.”
That sense of being “on the same team,” of working together to bridge the partisan divide for the sake of the country, is gone from U.S. politics — and it’s mostly the Republicans, not the Democrats, who have killed it. In his days as an insurgent Republican Congressmember and his four years (1995-1999) as Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich made clear his goal was not merely the defeat of the Democrats but their utter annihilation. During George W. Bush’s Presidency (2001-2009) his political advisor, Karl Rove, often talked about achieving “full-spectrum dominance” in American politics, and his actions made clear that what he meant by that was something like what the oxymoronically named Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, its initials in Spanish) had in Mexico during the last two-thirds of the 20th century: other political parties would still be allowed to exist, but only one would really matter.
When Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in the White House, Republicans became even more determined not only to defeat him on issues but render him irrelevant. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said as soon as Obama was elected that his goal was “to make him a one-term President,” and he and House Republican leader John Boehner organized a successful strategy to make sure no Republicans voted for Obama’s signature issue, the Affordable Care Act — even though Obama had accepted several Republican suggestions for amending the bill. And in the last year of Obama’s Presidency, McConnell refused even to allow the Senate to hold hearings on Obama’s last U.S. Supreme Court nomination, ensuring that the vacancy would still be open when Trump took office and Trump could fill the Court seat himself.
The 2018 midterms reveal a still profoundly divided country, with the Republicans — who still control the White House, the Supreme Court and the Senate (2 ½ branches of the federal government) — still determined it be “our way or the highway.” Rather than acknowledge the verdict of at least some of the voters the way George W. Bush did in 2006 and Obama did in 2010 and pledge to cooperate with the other party’s Congressional majority, Trump has proclaimed victory based on his party’s gains in the Senate and bluntly threatened that if House Democrats investigate him, he will have his party’s Senate majority investigate them — and, what’s more, he’ll refuse to cooperate with the Democrats on issues, government will grind to a halt and he will blame the Democrats for the impasse when he runs for re-election in 2020.

Mark’s Pre-Election Predictions: How Well Did I Do?

• The Republican Party will not only hold on to their current U.S. Senate majority, they will gain seats as Democratic incumbents in small states Trump carrled — Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Jon Tester in Montana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri — fall to the Republican juggernaut. Even Nevada Senator Dean Heller, the biggest target for Democrats since he’s the only Republican Senator running for re-election in a state Hillary Clinton carried over Donald Trump, will win.

About 50 percent on this one. The Republicans did hold their Senate majority, though of the four Senators I mentioned, only two — Heitkamp and McCaskill — lost their re-election bids and therefore “flipped” those seats to the Republicans. This was balanced by the surprise Democratic “flip” of retiring Republican Senator Jeff Flake’s seat in Arizona and their loss of Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada. It looks like the Republicans will still have the razor-thin 52 to 48 Senate margin they had at the start of the Trump administration — and that might narrow further by one seat if incumbent Bill Nelson manages to hold on to his seat in Florida against an aggressive challenge by Republican Governor Rick Scott.
Nonetheless, in American politics a majority of one is as good as a majority of 20 — as long as no one defects on key votes the way the late John McCain, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski did on the late 2017 vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Continued Republican control of the Senate is especially important because it will enable Trump and McConnell to keep going on their long-term plan to “pack” not only the Supreme Court but the federal courts in general with hard-Right judges picked by the person to whom the Republican Party has essentially subcontracted all its judicial nominations: Leonard Leo, president of the Federalist Society. Even if the Democrats win back both the presidency and the Senate in 2020, they’ll still have Trump’s judges to contend with, and the result could be a standoff much like the one Franklin Roosevelt and Congressional Democrats faced through much of the 1930’s, when an old-line Right-wing Supreme Court willy-nilly ruled just about everything they tried to do to stop the Depression unconstitutional.

• The Republicans will also hold on to their majority in the House of Representatives. They will lose 10 to 15 seats, a significant drop but not enough to cost them the chamber.

The biggest one I got wrong. Democrats actually did retake the House, due to a number of factors — including the disillusionment of suburban voters in general and suburban women in particular with Trump and the swaggering braggadocio with which he reigns; the willingness of Democrats to put up candidates in districts so overwhelmingly Republican in voter registration they hadn’t bothered contesting them at all in previous elections; the presence of inspiring new candidates challenging the traditional norms of what’s considered “electable” (including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old self-described democratic socialist who unseated an old-line pro-corporate Democrat in a New York primary; and Sharice Davids, an openly Lesbian Native American mixed martial arts fighter who won a Congressional seat in Kansas — I have a feeling Kansas isn’t Kansas anymore!); and above all an unusually high voter turnout, which approached 50 percent and has been called the biggest midterm turnout since 1914.
My biggest mistake in predicting the House was underestimating the turnout. I was worried that when all was said and done, the Democrats would wimp out and not show up at the polls the way they have in previous midterms. (A New Yorker commentator noted after the Democrats’ disastrous 2010 midterms — when they not only lost the House but took a huge beating in state governments, significant because they set the rules for elections, including deciding who can and can’t vote and how easy voting will be, and also draw the district lines for the House — that if the racial, gender and partisan composition of the electorate in 2008 had been the same as it was in 2010, John McCain would have been President.) Instead the Democratic base came through in a midterm for a change, and it brought with it a lot of voters who had supported Trump in 2016 but I suspect were turned off as much, if not more so, by his personal style as his (lack of) political accomplishments.

• More Americans will actually vote for Democrats than Republicans to represent them in both the House and Senate, but under the rules of the Constitution that won’t matter — just as it didn’t matter that in November 2016 three million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton to be President than for Donald Trump.

Though Democrats did win the House, their margin in the chamber (a five- to 12-seat majority, depending on how some still-open races turn out) is far below the 9 percent by which they won the “generic ballot” — and that’s due to the success of Republicans in using their control of state governments to gerrymander the district lines. “Gerrymander” is a word almost as old as the United States itself: it comes from Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts politician who was one of the original signers of the Constitution and James Madison’s second-term vice-president until he died in 1814. Gerry’s enduring claim to fame is that, in order to ensure that his party would keep control of Congress, he openly stacked the process of drawing district lines. One of the districts on his map looked so much like a salamander it was jokingly called the “gerrymander,” and the word entered American politics to mean a majority party unfairly drawing districts for its own advantage.
Like identity theft, gerrymandering became more common and more dangerous with the rise of computers. Sufficiently unscrupulous partisan officials in state governments now had access to software that could divide voters precinct by precinct and even block by block to produce maps meticulously calculated to favor one party over the other. California pioneered the fight against gerrymandering when its voters approved an initiative that took the power to draw legislative and Congressional districts away from the legislators themselves and vested it in an independent commission, and as of 2017 five other states — Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana and Washington — had followed suit. Three more states adopted independent redistricting in 2018, and studies have shown that districts drawn by independent commissions are more competitive than those designed by legislators themselves.
Nonetheless, despite the trend towards independent redistricting, there are still structural factors, including some embedded in the Constitution, that give small, racially homogeneous and generally Republican states disproportionate influence over American politics in general and Congress in particular. The Constitution guarantees each state two Senators and at least one House member — which means that the smallest state, Wyoming, with only 1/250th the population of the largest, California, not only is equal in Senate representation, its one Congressmember represents only one-fifth as many people as each of California’s 52.
That’s why I’ve often wished that the U.S. could abandon its system of representative government and substitute Germany’s, where the legislature is elected nationwide and if your party gets five percent or more of the national vote, it gets a proportion of legislative seats equal to its total percent of the vote. One good thing about the German system is it makes the formation of alternative political parties more rational. If you’re a German and you vote for the Green Party in a national election, you’re likely to get what you want — more Green Party members in Germany’s Congress, the Bundestag. If you vote for the Green Party in the U.S., all you’re likely to do is take votes away from the Democrat and help elect the Republican.

• With Republicans still in control of both houses of Congress, and with such mildly Trump-critical Senators as Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and the late John McCain (R-Arizona) replaced by Trump loyalists, Trump will be emboldened to “clean house” at the Justice Department, replacing Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, firing Robert Mueller and ending all investigations into his campaign, his Russian connections and his personal and business finances.

With Republicans losing control of the House, President Trump is moving even faster than I predicted to shut down the Mueller investigation. The day after the midterms, he fired Jeff Sessions as attorney general and replaced him with his chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, who’s made it clear in countless TV appearances that he regards the Mueller investigation as illegitimate and thinks it should be shut down, either by firing Mueller or by restricting his powers and his budget so much he can’t continue an honest, thorough probe. Whitaker’s appointment is being challenged on constitutional grounds, but with a Supreme Court majority solidly in Republican hands — and extreme Right-wing Republican hands, at that — the Court is likely to rule 5-4 that Whitaker’s appointment is legitimate and so is whatever he wants to do to Mueller.
Trump is well aware that he faces a deadline with Mueller: he must not only stop (or severely limit) his investigation, he must do so before January 3, 2019, when the Democrats formally take control of the House and can start their own investigations. At the same time, House Democrats will be in a bind because the Mueller investigation, as much as it’s become a cause célèbre in Washington, D.C., is considered virtually irrelevant by the rest of the country. The people who voted for House Democrats didn’t elect them to protect Mueller or investigate Trump: they elected them to protect their access to health care and hopefully generate some infrastructure projects that will create jobs.
One prediction I didn’t articulate in my original article on the run-up to the midterms was I didn’t think Nancy Pelosi would become House Speaker again even if the Democrats won the majority. I had thought that too many Democrats running from swing districts had had to promise not to vote for Pelosi in order to carry their districts that she would be defeated. Though the Democrats aren’t going to vote on their leadership until November 18, two days from now, I appear to have been wrong on that one. Certainly Pelosi is acting like a Speaker-in-waiting, and while she has a lot of the same kind of negative baggage Hillary Clinton did from decades of Republican political and media propaganda against her, one nice thing about Pelosi becoming Speaker again is how much it will discomfit Donald Trump, who’s made it clear over and over again he hates the very thought of a woman being in a position of authority.

• Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will end the legislative filibuster so Republicans can pass bills without any Democratic input or support. He’s already ended the filibuster for judicial nominations (which is how Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh got on the Supreme Court), and he wanted to end the legislative filibuster in 2017 but was blocked by John McCain and Orrin Hatch. Now that Hatch will be out of the Senate and McCain is dead, he’ll have the votes to get rid of the filibuster once and for all.

Had the Republicans kept control of the House, abolition of the Senate filibuster would have been virtually a done deal. McConnell would have wanted a sweeping legislative record to get Trump re-elected and keep the Republican majorities in 2020. Now it’s unclear because much of McConnell’s agenda — including the sweeping cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid I discuss below — will be “dead on arrival” in a Democratic House anyway, unless the Democratic leaders fall for the siren’s song of a “grand bargain” in which they give away the store on social programs in exchange for heaven knows what. The irony is that ending the legislative filibuster in the Senate is actually a long-overdue reform — the majority party in Congress should be able to legislate freely so voters can hold it to account and either reward it with continued power or punish it by taking it away — but now would be the worst time for that to happen for the causes and issues I believe in.

• Once they get rid of the legislative filibuster, the Republicans in Congress will repeal all or most of the Affordable Care Act and pass the big cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid they need in order to pay for the 2017 tax cuts (so clearly skewed towards the richest Americans they aren’t supported by a majority in polls) and the “phantom” middle-class tax cut Trump promised in the later stages of the 2018 campaign.

It’s quite possible that at least one factor in the Democratic gains in the House (and some unexpected victories in Senate races in places like Arizona and Nevada that partially counterbalanced their losses in Missouri, North Dakota and likely Florida) was McConnell’s passing statement in October that the new Congress would have to look at cutting Social Security and Medicare to pay for those big tax cuts for the super-rich. The Republicans remain an ideologically libertarian party, committed to the long-term goal of ending Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act completely and eliminating all taxation of the rich to benefit the not-so-rich.

• Though Democrats may make some gains in state governor’s and legislative races, most state governments will remain under Republican control. That means Republicans will continue and intensify the gimmicks with which they have maintained minority control, including gerrymandered Congressional and legislative districts and elaborate voter-suppression laws so people who wouldn’t vote Republican won’t be able to vote at all.

Actually the Democrats did pretty well in state races — they “flipped” the governorships not only in competitive states like Wisconsin (goodbye, Scott Walker, and good riddance!) and Michigan (goodbye and good riddance to the people who poisoned Flint’s water!) but even in Kansas, where the state’s finances and particularly its educational system have been ruined by decades of Republican control and libertarian tax-cutting. They came heartbreakingly close in Florida and Georgia, but though these races haven’t definitively been settled it’s clear that the odds are against any state in the former Confederacy electing an African-American governor.
As I pointed out above, control of state governments is more important than control of Congress in at least one respect: state governments control the rules of elections and the drawing of legislative districts. During the Obama years, Democrats talked a lot about demographics being destiny; they pointed to the fact that their parts of the electorate, particularly young people and people of color, were growing and the Republicans’ were shrinking. Rather than broaden their appeal, the Republicans decided to respond with a massive program of voter suppression to make sure people unlikely to vote Republican would not be able to vote at all. Only by contesting and winning more state governments can the Democrats block this and safeguard the ability of their voter base to vote. It’s especially important that Democrats take back statehouses in 2020 because those will be the governments that draw the Congressional districts for the next decade.

• Donald Trump will get re-elected President in 2020 the same way he got elected in 2016: he’ll lose the popular vote but will amass enough state victories he’ll win the Electoral College anyway.

Donald Trump will have a lot going for him in 2020, including a worldwide trend rewarding authoritarian populists. In 1974 Hans Morgenthau wrote an article in The New Republic that said there will always be limits on capitalist democracy because “there are some issues on which the ruling class will not allow themselves to be outvoted” — and today one of the biggest issues on which the world’s ruling classes will not allow themselves to be outvoted is their continuing determination to grab even more of society’s wealth and income for themselves. Not just in America but in countries as varied as Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines and Brazil, ordinary citizens have given up on democracy as a remedy for wealth and income inequality and are instead electing strongmen who promised to fix everything by the sheer strength of their personality.
Indeed, the inability of the established political parties to do much of anything to counter the trend towards increasing inequality is making politics more volatile worldwide. In the parliamentary systems of Western Europe, it’s increasing vote totals among the extreme parties of both Right and Left at the expense of the traditional center-right (usually Christian Democrats) and center-left (usually Social Democrats) parties. In Britain it led to “Brexit,” the nation’s insane and self-destructive vote to leave the European Union. In the countries listed above where authoritarian strongmen have taken over — essentially using the democratic process one last time in order to destroy democracy once and for all — it has led to one-person rule and the inevitably resulting abuses, including the end of press freedom and civil rights and the mass arrests of political dissidents.
In the United States the frustration over the widening gaps in wealth and income produced first the center-left presidency of Barack Obama and then a massive (though not quite as massive as Trump and Republican propaganda would lead you to believe) shift to Donald Trump and the authoritarian solution. In a 2017 interview with Rachel Maddow, Hillary Clinton summed it up when Maddow asked her why Trump admires Russian President Vladimir Putin so much, and Clinton answered, “He wants to be like Putin.” Trump’s admiration for Putin was apparent in the photo of the world’s leaders at the World War I centennial commemoration in Paris, in which the Western Europeans greeted Putin with pursed-lip frowns and Trump smiled at Putin like the Cheshire cat.

And his fundamental impatience with democracy was apparent in the week after the midterms, when he ramped up his attacks on reporters to such a degree he seemed (at least to me) to be thinking, “I wish I were Putin. Then I could have you arrested and your media outlets shut down.” In 2018 voters in the U.S. didn’t rise up and reverse Trump’s authoritarian agenda, but they did try to put the brakes on it and slow it down. The bad news from the midterms is that there is still a sizable minority of American voters who believe in Trump, his agenda and his style. The good news is that the rest of America is beginning to rise up against him.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Fear Rules the Midterms


Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“You are under the impression that hatred is more exhausting than love. Why should it be? And if it were, what difference would that make? Suppose that we choose to wear ourselves out faster. Suppose that we quicken the tempo of human life till men are senile at thirty. Still, what difference would it make? Can you not understand that the death of the individual is not death? The Party is immortal.”
— O’Brien to Winston Smith in 1984, by George Orwell

Even before the explosive — in both senses — news that broke on October 24 that a person or persons unknown had sent bombs to a number of President Donald Trump’s most prominent critics, the November 6, 2018 midterm elections had been dominated by fear. Among Democrats, the fear is that if Republicans keep control over both the House of Representatives and the Senate, President Trump will be free from the last potential shackles of accountability and able to make himself a virtual dictator, ruling either by decree or with the consent of a supine, powerless Congress the way his idol, Vladimir Putin of Russia, does.
Among Republicans, the carefully stoked fears are of anyone who’s “different” — who isn’t white, isn’t either male or a properly submissive female, isn’t heterosexual or cisgender (a word most Republicans probably wouldn’t recognize even if they tripped over it), and who isn’t U.S.-born. Trump has made himself the latest and most shameless spokesperson of a Republican campaign of fear that has been going on for at least 50 years, aimed at manipulating voters into supporting an agenda that is bad for them economically and socially by carefully throwing them scapegoat after scapegoat — immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, “uppity” women, Queers,[1] Muslims, whoever — and organizing them to vote accordingly.
We’ve all heard the plaints of the dwindling number of commentators who attempt to be “impartial” that American politics are increasingly polarized and this is a bad thing. When the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-New York) said, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts,” he was wrong. In today’s hyper-polarized political and media climate, where the rise of the Internet and social media have enabled just about any American to customize their sources of information so tightly they literally never see, hear or read anything that doesn’t already agree with their preconceptions, people feel they are entitled to their own facts.
The facts — the real, objective “facts” — about the bomb incidents are that between Monday, October 22, and Wednesday, October 24, suspicious packages containing crude but still potentially deadly pipe bombs were received at the homes of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, Obama’s vice-president Joe Biden, and financier and Democratic donor George Soros. Similar packages were received at the offices of Congressmembers Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) and the New York newsroom of Cable News Network (CNN).
Wasserman Schultz’ name (the latter misspelled “Shultz”) and office were the return addresses on all the packages, and one came to her office because it was addressed to former attorney general Eric Holder but was returned to sender. CNN got their package as an apparent mistake because it was addressed to former CIA director John Brennan — who works at NBC News, not CNN — and in a grim bit of irony it arrived when they were in the middle of delivering a news report about the other bombs. None of the bomb packages actually exploded, and no one was physically injured by them. All the intended recipients had security details in place — the Obamas, Clintons and Bidens still enjoy Secret Service protection as former Presidents or Vice-Presidents — that intercepted the bombs and turned them over to police intact.
The bombs themselves were made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe, explosive powder from fireworks, and either nails or ground glass to serve as shrapnel and make them more deadly. The bomb sent to CNN also contained white powder, but it turned out to be harmless. They also contained delayed-action timers made from digital alarm clocks, unusual in mail bombs because mail bombs are usually set to go off immediately once someone opens the package that contains them. Delayed-action timers are more common in bombs personally planted by the bomber, who naturally wants a chance to set off the bomb remotely so s/he isn’t injured when the bomb goes off — and at least two of the bombs in the current cycle (the ones to Soros and CNN) were personally planted because, though like the rest of the packages they had six U.S. Postal Service “Forever” stamps attached, the stamps were not cancelled the way they were in the packages that were mailed.

Catastrophe Through a Partisan Lens

Those are the basic facts about the bombing attacks as we knew them on Thursday morning, October 25. Two other major things have happened since: on Friday, October 26 the FBI announced that they had arrested a suspect in the case: Cesar Sayoc, a part-Italian, part-Filipino resident of Boca Raton, Florida who drove a white van, which he was apparently living out of, that was decorated with photos of President Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence as well as pictures of Hillary Clinton with target-style crosshairs over her head. The van was also decorated with a graphic showing the CNN logo with the word “Sucks” under it.
The following day, Sayoc’s 15 minutes of fame suddenly ended when someone else allegedly perpetrated an even more ghastly crime. The suspect’s name was Robert Bowers, and he’s in police custody in a hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania under arrest for shooting up a synagogue and killing 11 people. Unlike Sayoc, who had Facebook and Twitter pages on which he regularly posted messages supporting Trump but whose social media presence went no farther than that, Bowers regularly participated on a Web site called Gab, to which he posted typical anti-Semitic hate propaganda. Also unlike Sayoc, Bowers declared himself farther Right than President Trump, whom he called a “globalist” and apparently mistrusted because Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is Jewish.
Everything else about the bombings — the ones we knew about on Thursday as well as bombs sent to other targets, including U.S. Senators Kamala Harris (D-California) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and former director of national intelligence James Clapper — is speculation, perhaps inevitable speculation, but still speculation. The inevitable speculation is fueled by the fact that, as John Cassidy pointed out on The New Yorker’s Web site October 24, “[A]ll of the targets were people whom Donald Trump has lambasted in his campaign rallies and outpourings on Twitter. They are also people who have been subjected to hateful abuse online by Trump supporters and alt-right groups. (In the case of Soros, as my colleague Eric Lach pointed out earlier, the attacks aren’t limited to the United States, and they go back years.)”
Partisan Democrats and progressives in general — including me — leaped to the assumption that the bomber or bombers were out to help Trump and the Republicans win the midterms by silencing prominent voices on our side of the political debate. Republicans and Right-wingers in general equally quickly leaped to the conclusion that the bomb attacks were a “false flag” operation conducted by Democrats. As veteran Right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh put it on October 24:

“Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing, even though every event like mass shootings, remember, every mass shooting there is, Democrats and the media try to make everybody think right off the bat that some Tea Partier did it, or some talk radio fan did it, or some Fox News viewer did it — turns out it’s never, ever the case. Not one of these bombs went off and if a Democrat operative’s purpose here is to make it look like, ‘Hey, you know there are mobs everywhere… not just Democrat mobs.’”

So the bomb attempts — or whatever they were — against prominent Democrats and their supporters probably won’t have much effect on the midterm elections at all. Both Left and Right think that their side is preserving American democracy and the other side is destroying it. That will continue. Voters will filter the actual facts of the attacks through their finely honed partisan perceptions and believe what they want to believe. Either you’ll conclude that Trump’s nasty rhetoric and heated denunciations of all the people targeted by the mystery bombers have poisoned the political discourse so much that a few Right-wing crazies decided to kill the people Trump has told them to hate, or you’ll believe that the Democrats are so unscrupulous they’ll send fake bombs to themselves just to get more Americans to hate the Republicans.
President Trump’s own reaction is indicative of the man we’ve come to know from his over 30 years in public life and over three years in politics. He went ahead with a previously scheduled campaign rally in Wisconsin to support Leah Bukmir, the Republican opponent to incumbent Senator Tammy Baldwin (the first openly Queer person ever elected to the House or the Senate) and, using a rhetorical device he’s fond of called paralipsis — saying something by saying you’re not going to say it — he said sotto voce that Baldwin is a socialist who’s out to destroy Medicare. Then he said that if he weren’t trying to be nice and a voice of unity after the bomb attacks, Trump said he’d yell that Baldwin was a socialist who’s out to destroy Medicare —which he proceeded to do.
Trump did say a few of the right things after the bomb attacks. He pledged that the federal government will do its utmost to bring the people who sent the bombs to justice. He told his Wisconsin audience, “We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony. Any acts or threats of political violence are an attack on our democracy itself.” The man who’s famously given his political opponents nasty, vicious nicknames like “Crooked Hillary,” “Pocohontas” (referring to Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and her claim to have partial Native American ancestry), and “Lyin’ Ted” — one he just had to walk back now that he’s endorsing Ted Cruz’s re-election bid for the U.S. Senate from Texas — said people in politics must “stop treating political opponents as being morally defective.”
But then, as it does so often with Donald Trump, the real Donald Trump started coming out. Later in the Wisconsin speech he started blaming the mainstream media in general and CNN — one of the bomb targets — in particular. “The media also has [sic] a responsibly to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories.” He raised the ante against the media the next morning on his favorite medium, Twitter, writing, “"A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”
In other words, if the media would just stop reporting anything bad about Trump and his administration — if they’d stop prattling on about that “witch hunt” investigation into his alleged ties to Russia, if they’d stop publishing lists of alleged Trump “lies,” if they’d no longer broadcast video clips of Trump saying something months ago that now he says he never said — we’d have “unity” and we wouldn’t have political violence or the threat of it. It’s yet more evidence, in case we needed it, that Donald Trump does not and never has wanted to be a United States President, powerful but still constrained by constitutional limits and the rights of its people. He wants to be a dictator, and just as he wants a Congress which will rubber-stamp everything he wants to do, he wants a media system that will ignore or cover up his failings and give the people of America and the world an endless stream of propaganda hailing the Great Leader and proclaiming the perfect, eternal wisdom, foresight and sagacity of Donald Trump.

Tyranny of the Minority

And if the Republican Party retains control of both houses of Congress in the November 6 midterms — which is looking more and more like the most likely outcome — Trump will probably get his wish. With continued Republican control of the U.S. Senate, which is virtually certain now that in almost every state with a closely contested Senate race the momentum is on the Republican side, Trump and Mitch McConnell will continue to be able to “pack” not only the Supreme Court but the entire federal judiciary with Federalist Society clones who will enact the priorities of the Republican Party — pro-corporate, anti-worker, anti-consumer, anti-environment, anti-people of color, anti-women, anti-Queer and pro-“religious freedom,” which in their view means the unfettered power of Right-wing Christianity to determine the values and mores the rest of us must live by — into not only case law but Constitutional law.
And if the Republicans keep the House of Representatives as well, there goes the last possible check on the Trump administration’s ability to do whatever it wants, no matter how sleazy, corrupt or technically illegal. A President Trump with a Republican Congress in 2019 will be able to act with impunity. He will have cowed the Justice Department into silence. He will be able to fire attorney general Jeff Sessions and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and replace them with faithful lapdogs who will in turn fire special counsel Robert Mueller and order an end to any and all prosecutions based on allegations of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia in 2016 or since. He will be able to launch spurious “investigations” of Hillary Clinton and other top Democrats while his faithful minions in Congress sweep the rug under the crimes of Trump and his administration.
In the 2018 midterms the Republicans are very close to turning the carefully structured republic created by the U.S. Constitution into a tyranny of the minority: a blueprint for perpetual Republican Party rule. A number of factors have helped them get close to this goal, and one of them is the structure of the Constitution itself. As James Madison made clear in Federalist #10, the United States was intended from the first to be a republic, not a democracy, because:

[A] pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

By contrast, Madison wrote, a republic based on representative government would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” What that meant in practice was a system in which the highest office elected directly by the people would be their member of the House of Representatives. The President would be chosen by an Electoral College and the Senate, at least in the original constitutional design, would be chosen by state legislatures. (That wasn’t changed until 1913.) What’s more, each state, no matter its size, would have two U.S. Senators — a compromise that has become significantly more undemocratic now than it was then. When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, the largest state, Virginia, had nine times as many people as the smallest, Rhode Island. Today the largest state, California, has 250 times as many people as the smallest, Wyoming.
The authors of the Constitution did something else that has become especially relevant this year: they gave state governments virtually absolute power not only to draw U.S. Congressional districts but to determine who may vote and under what circumstances. Technically barred by the 15th Amendment from actually passing laws that said Blacks couldn’t vote, most of the Southern states in the late 19th century adopted various tactics — literacy tests, poll taxes, ID requirements, and sometimes outright extra-legal intimidation by groups like the Ku Klux Klan — to prevent African-Americans from voting. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was designed to end this, but it was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 and as a result modern-day Southern Republicans (and Republicans in other states as well) have revived the tactics of their Democratic forebears to rig elections by making it impossible for people who would vote against them to be able to vote at all.
Much of the Republican Party’s success over the last 50 years has come from their skill at exploiting the undemocratic features of the United States Constitution — the Electoral College, the Senate and the powers of state legislatures to determine who may vote — to their advantage. But the key factor that brought the Republicans to power in 1968 and has, with a few minor exceptions, kept them there to this day is the political and social ferment of the 1960’s. The cataclysmic events of the 1960’s reversed the two major parties’ historical positions on civil rights: the Democrats, once the party of slavery, secession, segregation and the Klan, became identified with the equality struggles of African-Americans and the other oppressed groups — other people of color, women, Queers — who rose up in their wake and pursued similar strategies to win equality.
In the 1960’s the Republicans seized on this and in turn flipped their historical position on civil rights and social equality. The “Party of Lincoln” cut a deal with Southern racists — it was negotiated between Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond (Democrat turned independent turned Republican Senator from South Carolina and a hard-core racist and segregationist who also fathered a Black child) and was called the “Southern Strategy.” Though initially intended as an ad hoc response to the independent Presidential candidacy of racist Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1968 and the fear that Wallace might split the potential Republican vote and throw an otherwise winnable election to the Democrats, the “Southern Strategy” worked for the Republicans not only in the South but nationwide.
Stoking the fears of working-class white voters that gains for African-Americans and other people of color would mean economic losses for them, the Republicans were able to break the fabled “New Deal coalition” that had made the Democrats the majority party from 1932 to 1968. They were able to pull the white working class away from the Democrats and align it solidly with the Republicans. The process took decades, but the 2016 election essentially completed it — the “Nixon Democrats” who had been the “Reagan Democrats” finally re-registered and became Trump Republicans. They provided the deciding votes in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin — states whose economies had suffered from the globalist policies of Democratic Presidents like Clinton and Obama and the export of virtually all American manufacturing to Third World countries like Mexico and China — that made Donald Trump President in 2016 even though he lost the popular vote by three million.
Another key factor in establishing Republican supremacy in American politics was the rise of a Right-wing media propaganda machine and its growing influence and power. This began in 1987, when President Reagan’s appointees at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed the 38-year-old “Fairness Doctrine” which required broadcasters to represent various political views equally. As a result, the AM radio band became almost exclusively devoted to Right-wing talk radio. Not only did nationwide broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh become superstars, the talk radio message was coordinated by weekly meetings organized by Right-wing activist and financier Grover Norquist who distributed talking points to radio hosts nationwide and made sure they all “stayed on the same page” and became part of a unified propaganda machine of devastating effectiveness.
The Right-wing media machine created on AM radio after the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987 came to TV with the launch of the Fox News Channel in 1996. Fox quickly surpassed the moderate CNN as the number one cable news channel in ratings — a status it has never lost — and between them talk radio and Fox News literally determined how many millions of Americans would think about politics, and would vote. Talk radio and Fox News achieved their power largely by mobilizing the two big issues that had been at the heart of Republican cultural appeals since 1968 — stopping (or, better yet, reversing) the gains of the civil rights movements and upholding mainstream American culture, including the religious values of Right-wing Christianity, against attack from the so-called “counter-culture.” In 1968 that mainly meant being against the hippies; today it mostly means being against Queer people and also opposing any further expansion of the rights and overall autonomy of women.
One other factor that has ensured continued Right-wing dominance of American politics is that the South remains the key “swing” region of American politics. As someone old enough to remember when the “Solid South” was solidly Democratic instead of solidly Republican, it’s been depressing to see the South become the bulwark of a Right-wing coalition instead of (as it was during Franklin Roosevelt’s time) a sort of accidental, cranky junior partner in an economically progressive one. The fact remains that as long as the Republicans can hold the South, they can keep the Presidency.
The three Democrats elected President since 1968 — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — all made substantial inroads into the South and carried some Southern states. Carter and Clinton did this by being white Southerners themselves and Obama did it by being Black, and thereby mobilizing African-American voters to turn out for him in even greater numbers than they usually did for Democrats, overcoming the overwhelming advantage Republicans have among Southern whites. George W. Bush carried all 11 of the former Confederate states — Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and Florida — in both the 2000 and 2004 elections, and Trump carried them all except Virginia (largely because Hillary Clinton chose Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate).
And it’s not just the South. Throughout the country, the continuing propaganda assault by the Republican Party and the Right-wing media machine that supports it have created a cadre of voters who are so addicted to the Kool-Aid they will never vote for a Democrat for anything. In her book What Happened Hillary Clinton recalled that she got this message loud and clear in 2014, when she went to a town-hall meeting in Arkansas and found that, while most Arkansans still liked their then-Senator, Democrat Mark Pryor, they were ready to vote him out of office and replace him with a Republican (which they did). One person at the meeting told Clinton, “The Democrats are going to take my guns away and make me attend Gay weddings.”
Throughout 2017 and 2018, the Democrats came heartbreakingly close to winning one special election for Congress after another — but couldn’t quite seal the deal. They boasted that they were able to cut down the margin by which the Republicans carried certain House districts from 25 to 1 percent —but they still lost. And in America’s single-member district, winner-take-all political system, winning by 1 percent is just as good as winning by 25 percent.
The Democrats are in the frustrating position of a salesman who can get a potential customer to look at a product, perhaps even test it, but can’t get the customer actually to sign on the dotted line. All the carefully constructed racial and cultural prejudices millions of Americans, especially ones who don’t live on the East or West Coasts, have been conditioned to have against the Democratic Party have struck again and again, in election after election, and are coming to the fore now as virtually all the supposedly “tossup” U.S. Senate seats are going strongly Republican in the latest polls.
This unholy combination — an aggressive Republican Party that is able to mobilize people with racial and cultural appeals to vote against their economic self-interest, a media network that keeps people in line by giving them only those “facts” that fit the Republican view of the world, a constitutional structure that gives disproportionate power to small states ruled by politically and culturally Right-wing white majorities, and a U.S. tradition of internal migration by which politically and culturally liberal people tend to concentrate in the coastal states and leave their Middle American homelands — has created a tyranny of the Republican minority that appears likely to continue after 2018.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how it will ever end, barring either an overwhelming catastrophe at the level of the 1930’s Great Depression that broke the power of the Republican Party the last time it had this level of control over American politics, or some concerted effort on the part of the Democratic Party and progressives in general to break the stranglehold the Republican political and media propaganda machines have over so many of the American people. Even the last big U.S. catastrophe — the meltdown of the financial system in late 2008 — produced only a temporary two-year respite from Republican hegemony.
What’s worse, the Republicans have a clear-cut ideology which they are pursuing with relentless determination. It includes cutting, and eventually ending, the big so-called “entitlement” programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act — and ending virtually all regulation of corporations. It means an end to protections for workers, consumers and the environment. It means a reversal of the civil-rights gains African-Americans have made over the past 60 years and the more recent ones by women, other people of color, and Queers. It contains a seeming internal contradiction — it calls for an end to government regulation of private business while also demanding an increase in government regulation of people’s personal lives, especially their sex lives — but one which the Republicans have somehow been able to finesse for at least the last 38 years, since the so-called “Christian Right” emerged as a major partner in the coalition that has elected Ronald Reagan and every Republican President since.
The Democrats, by contrast, are still riven by the ideological divide that has split them whenever they’ve been out of power since 1896. Should they be a forthrightly progressive party aimed at appealing to the economic and social have-nots, curbing corporate power, protecting workers’ rights (including the right to organize and form unions) and creating, protecting and expanding the social safety net? Or should they become Republicans Lite, appealing to corporate funders while still posing as the friends of the 99 percent? All the great clashes over the Democratic Presidential nomination of the last 120 years — between Grover Cleveland and William Jennings Bryan in 1896, William Gibbs McAdoo and Al Smith in 1924, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart in 1984, Howard Dean and John Kerry in 2004, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016 — have been manifestations of this great, still unsettled debate.

Mark’s Predictions for the Midterms (and Beyond)

• The Republican Party will not only hold on to their current U.S. Senate majority, they will gain seats as Democratic incumbents in small states Trump carrled — Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Jon Tester in Montana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri — fall to the Republican juggernaut. Even Nevada Senator Dean Heller, the biggest target for Democrats since he’s the only Republican Senator running for re-election in a state Hillary Clinton carried over Donald Trump, will win.
• The Republicans will also hold on to their majority in the House of Representatives. They will lose 10 to 15 seats, a significant drop but not enough to cost them the chamber.
• More Americans will actually vote for Democrats than Republicans to represent them in both the House and Senate, but under the rules of the Constitution that won’t matter — just as it didn’t matter that in November 2016 three million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton to be President than for Donald Trump.
• With Republicans still in control of both houses of Congress, and with such mildly Trump-critical Senators as Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and the late John McCain (R-Arizona) replaced by Trump loyalists, Trump will be emboldened to “clean house” at the Justice Department, replacing Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, firing Robert Mueller and ending all investigations into his campaign, his Russian connections and his personal and business finances.
• Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will end the legislative filibuster so Republicans can pass bills without any Democratic input or support. He’s already ended the filibuster for judicial nominations (which is how Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh got on the Supreme Court), and he wanted to end the legislative filibuster in 2017 but was blocked by John McCain and Orrin Hatch. Now that Hatch will be out of the Senate and McCain is dead, he’ll have the votes to get rid of the filibuster once and for all.
• Once they get rid of the legislative filibuster, the Republicans in Congress will repeal all or most of the Affordable Care Act and pass the big cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid they need in order to pay for the 2017 tax cuts (so clearly skewed towards the richest Americans they aren’t supported by a majority in polls) and the “phantom” middle-class tax cut Trump promised in the later stages of the 2018 campaign.
• Though Democrats may make some gains in state governor’s and legislative races, most state governments will remain under Republican control. That means Republicans will continue and intensify the gimmicks with which they have maintained minority control, including gerrymandered Congressional and legislative districts and elaborate voter-suppression laws so people who wouldn’t vote Republican won’t be able to vote at all.
• Donald Trump will get re-elected President in 2020 the same way he got elected in 2016: he’ll lose the popular vote but will amass enough state victories he’ll win the Electoral College anyway.

[1] — I use the term “Queer” as an inclusive term for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people because I reject the sham inclusionism of that ghastly set of initials, “LGBT people.”

Saturday, October 27, 2018

We Need to Get Rid of the Goddamned Guns


Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“So many guns, and so few brains behind ’em.”
   Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

We need to get rid of the goddamned guns.
On Saturday, October 27, 11 members of the ironically named Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania became the latest victims of the U.S. government’s failure at all levels — federal, state and local — to protect its citizens against nuts with guns. A 46-year-old man named Robert Bowers with a history of making anti-Semitic comments on a social media Web site called Gab decided to translate his words into action and randomly kill 11 people whose only “crime” was being Jewish.
We need to get rid of the goddamned guns.
According to the charges federal authorities have filed against him, Bowers entered the synagogue about 10 a.m. Eastern time (7 a.m. Pacific time) armed with an AR-15 military-grade assault rifle and three handguns, and started shooting people. When police arrived, according to media reports, Bowers came out of the synagogue and engaged fire. By the time it was over, 11 people were dead and six others — two Tree of Life congregants and four police officers — were wounded.
We need to get rid of the goddamned guns.
Politicians, community leaders, media commentators and the people left to pick up the pieces after mass shootings are fond of saying we can’t “normalize” these events. The truth is we already have. The rabbi at Tree of Life has said he considered putting his congregation through a drill to practice what they should do if a mass shooter attacked their building. Other congregations in other religions already have. We’ve already locked down schools, airports, concerts and even political rallies because of the omnipresent threats of mass violence and terrorism. Now we’re being told that the price of the New Order will be armed guards at our churches — and no doubt metal detectors and other “security” devices as we enter the doors of a house of faith to worship whatever God we believe in.
We’ve become unwilling combatants in an ongoing war. In Pittsburgh, the police had to adopt military-style tactics — “going to ground” and crawling their way to the shooter to try to stay out of his line of fire — and the doctor who supervises the emergency ward at the hospital where the six wounded victims were taken said on TV he was using tactics he learned in the military to try to save their lives. We all live in a permanent war zone because we’ve subcontracted our entire national policy on firearms to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and even crazier gun nuts like Gun Owners of America, who’ve held the political system hostage to a few well-mobilized voters who think there’s some sacred “right” under the Second Amendment for which so many real, living, innocent Americans have to sacrifice their lives.
We need to get rid of the goddamned guns.
This particular nut was driven by anti-Semitism. Another one shot up an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina because he hated Blacks. The two kids who committed mass murder at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado were doing it to express all too typical adolescent alienation. A shooter in Santa Barbara went on a killing spree because he couldn’t get laid. A man in Colorado shot up a movie theater that was showing a Batman film and dressed up as the Joker, a villain in the Batman mythos. A Pakistani-American couple in San Bernardino shot up a social-service office because they thought that would make them part of a jihad sponsored by ISIS. The U.S.-born son of Afghan-American parents shot up a Gay disco in Orlando, Florida. Another shooter in Sandy Hook, Connecticut shot up an elementary school and killed kids just after he’d killed his mother, and since he died in the incident we’ll never know what his motive was.
It doesn’t matter why these awful people do what they do. What matters is how easy the U.S. makes it for them to do it. We need to get rid of the goddamned guns.
President Trump, predictably, emerged from his well-sheltered, well-secured White House on his way to a campaign rally in Indianapolis (where he spoke before an audience whose every member had to be searched by Secret Service agents on their way in) to say that gun laws would have done “little” to stop the Pittsburgh shooting. He said that the Tree of Life Synagogue should have hired an “armed guard” — as some synagogues and other religious institutions already have — and that would have stopped the rampage.
Never mind that a lot of these “armed guards” have about the level of training and experience of Paul Blart, Mall Cop. Never mind that a sufficiently powerful and sophisticated shooter — especially one who’d been in the military and did have training — could easily overpower the kind of security-service rent-a-cops who usually take jobs like this. Never mind that the more “security” we put on people every time they go somewhere to learn, to worship, to hear live music or participate in a political rally makes them wonder if the trouble of being searched at the door — and potentially hassled over a letter opener or a can of hair spray — makes attending the event no longer worth it.
What President Trump is saying, in essence, is that the government is not going to protect you against mass shooters. You need to protect you against mass shooters. If you run a church — especially a synagogue, an African-American church, a U.S. mosque or any other sort of religious enterprise that triggers prejudice and hatred among a fair number of Americans — you have to hire an “armed guard” to protect your members against attack. You have to pay for their security. If your perimeter is actually breached — if someone shows up and starts shooting you — then law enforcement will involve themselves and intervene to kill or capture the shooter. But until then, you’re on your own.
We need to get rid of the goddamned guns.
We know how this happened. Every American does. It began with the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Actually it began earlier than that, when the first white settlers came to the New World in the 1500’s and 1600’s. They had firearms and the Native American populations didn’t. As feminist and Native American historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has argued, those “well-regulated militias” were formed to mobilize the entire white American population to fight back just in case the dispossessed Natives tried to conquer back the land that was rightfully theirs. They were also used to suppress any attempts by Black American slaves to revolt and win their freedom.
However problematic the Second Amendment’s application to “well-regulated militias” may have been, at least historically it wasn’t interpreted to grant every individual American a right to “keep and bear” whatever sort of weapon s/he wanted. That changed in 2007, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ghastly decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which threw out a Washington, D.C. law regulating gun ownership and for the first time established that the Second Amendment did grant an individual right to own guns.
This decision was largely the result of the NRA’s slow, steady takeover of the American political system, and specifically the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election. Ignore most of what you’ve heard about why, despite losing the popular vote, George W. Bush became President and Al Gore didn’t. Gore didn’t lose because of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Florida Secretary of State, or Ralph Nader. He lost because the NRA mounted independent campaigns against him in the key states of Tennessee and West Virginia, which mobilized enough gun-rights supporters to carry those states for Bush.
This is significant because, in what was otherwise a razor-close election, Gore became the first major-party Presidential nominee since George McGovern in 1972 to lose his home state, Tennessee. Had Gore carried Tennessee, he would have won the Electoral College and Florida wouldn’t have mattered. And every politician in America — Democrat as well as Republican, blue-state as well as red-state — got the message loud and clear. Don’t talk about regulating guns. Even when the body count mounts from mass shooting after mass shooting, offer only “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a country that entertains itself almost exclusively with violence should be so prone to outbursts of real violence. A huge proportion of American movies, including virtually all the biggest blockbuster hits, are celebrations of violence by “good guys” against “bad guys,” and the plots of major films are getting more and more beside the point. All most movie writers have to do today is figure out how to get the story from one big action scene to the next, to “give the people what they really want” — the vicarious thrill of seeing people kill each other. It shouldn’t be surprising that a country that entertains itself that way produces more than a few people demented enough not to be satisfied with vicarious violence, but to seek out the real thing.
The result is that we have a government that has willfully ignored its most basic duty: to keep its citizens alive and safe. Thanks to our failure to do anything to prevent the crazies who commit mass shootings from acquiring the weapons to do so means that the U.S. government at all levels — federal, state, local — is abrogating its responsibility, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, to secure the people’s “unalienable Right” to “Life.” Every victim of every mass shooting in America, especially each one where the shooter uses a military-grade weapon whose only function is to kill a large number of humans in a short time, is a silent witness to our government’s failure to secure us this most basic right to survive. And as the Declaration goes on to say:

[W[henever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

It is time for the ordinary people who aren’t part of the gun lobby or ideologically enthralled to it to rise up and take back our right to life. It is time for us to become a more powerful voting bloc than the NRA and its cronies. It is time to insist, by any legal means necessary — including, if necessary, a Constitutional amendment clarifying the issue — that the Second Amendment does not confer an absolute right of individuals to bear high-powered firearms, especially ones whose only purpose is mass killing of humans. It is time for us to rise up and end the tyranny of the National Rifle Association and the mass shooters enabled by the policies they have foisted on government — including President Trump’s executive order, signed shortly after he took office, that made it easier for mentally ill people to get guns — and instead put sane restrictions on gun ownership that are necessary to protect our people’s lives.
Yes, NRA members, we are coming for your guns. Our nation cannot survive if we continue to allow it to be held hostage by a few gun nuts and the politicians they have bought and paid for. We need to be as single-minded in our voting as the NRA’s members and supporters are. We need to withhold our votes from any politician, no matter how much we may agree with them on other issues, if they don’t or won’t vote for sane laws on guns. If we want the bloodbath in America to stop, we must use our political power to vote, organize and mobilize to stop it.

We need to get rid of the goddamned guns.