Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Trump and Syria: Orangeman Wins Again!

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

At the end of William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, part 2, the dying King Henry IV — who took power by staging a palace coup against his cousin, Richard II, and spent virtually the whole of his reign fighting back against attempts to get rid of him and put Richard’s designated heir on the throne — summons his son and heir, Prince Hal, to his deathbed for some last-minute advice. Among the things Henry IV tells his son to do as king is “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” — that is, to stop the revolutions and reunite the country by aiming its military at another country. And he doesn’t need to tell his son what the other country should be: France, which England had been trying to conquer since the reign of Henry IV’s grandfather, Edward III, over 50 years earlier.
Not that the new King Henry V’s military adventure in France went well. Like U.S. President George W. Bush’s military in Iraq almost seven centuries later, Henry’s forces won a few quick victories, including a major one at the Battle of Agincourt that essentially led Henry V to declare, like Bush, “Mission Accomplished.” Then Henry V died, leaving a two-year-old son as his heir and a lot of feuding nobles in his court who fought over which one would get to rule until the baby prince was old enough to do so himself. The English army in France got bogged down in a long war of occupation against a native resistance led by a woman named Joan of Arc, and not only were they driven out of France, within two decades England was bogged down in a bloody civil war, the Wars of the Roses, and France had recovered enough that both sides in the English civil war sought French help.
But at least temporarily, Henry V was able to unite his country behind his rule by following his dad’s advice to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” And, at least so far, so has U.S. President Donald Trump. On Friday, March 31, the Trump administration looked like it was in pretty sorry shape. It was beset not only by internal conflicts between Trump’s top personal advisors — Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — but by ongoing investigations by the FBI and both houses of Congress into whether the government of Russia not only attempted to influence the U.S. election in Trump’s favor but had the help of Trump’s top advisers in doing so. Within a week, all that had changed: not only had the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate abolished the filibuster on Presidential appointments to get Right-wing judge Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, which would have been a major victory in and of itself, but Trump had fired 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles from a U.S. destroyer into Syria to destroy, or at least damage, an air base that had allegedly been used by the Syrian government to attack one of their own cities with chemical weapons.
Instantly, the pundits that had been blasting Trump and saying his days in the White House were numbered were now hailing him as “Presidential.” There doesn’t seem to be anything quite like starting a war to boost a new President’s popularity ratings. It wasn’t always thus — back when both Presidents and Congresses took seriously the division of responsibility in the U.S. Constitution that it was up to Congress to decide when the U.S. would go to war, and only after that decision was reached would the President be the commander-in-chief of the forces fighting it, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt had to drag the country kicking and screaming into the Civil War, World War I and World War II, respectively.
But since then starting a war has been a virtually sure-fire booster for Presidential popularity — although, maddeningly if you’re a U.S. President, keeping one going has had the opposite effect. Ronald Reagan’s numbers went up when he invaded Grenada even though few Americans could have found Grenada on a map before the U.S. sent troops into it. Likewise George H. W. Bush’s popularity went up when he led a coalition to retake Kuwait from Iraq, and his son George W. Bush’s went up when he (like Henry V) invaded a country that had been on his nation’s long-term shit list, started a war to overthrow its government and won a few quick victories. And Trump has made it to the “Presidential” list with his attack on Syria — though given that Assad has upped his ante and launched more chemical attacks since Trump’s April 7 raid, it’s anybody’s guess what the long-term consequences shall be and whether Trump and his advisers will be able to keep the U.S. attacks on Syria limited or whether they’ll grow into a full-scale war.
The civil war in Syria between the government of President Bashar al-Assad — who inherited the country in 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad — and a wide variety of rebels, including fighters aligned with al-Qaeda or ISIS (“Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”) has been going on for at least six years. It has forced at least five million people out of the country, most of them stuck in squalid refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan. President Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, attempted, carefully and gingerly, to let a few thousand of those refugees settle in the U.S. Trump slammed the door on that and named Syria as one of the six or seven countries whose citizens would not be allowed to travel or emigrate to the U.S. until his administration could put what he called “extreme vetting” programs in place (even beyond the extreme vetting Obama’s government had put them through) to make sure they’re not terrorists.
Obama followed a confused policy on Syria, refusing to commit U.S. ground forces to any side of Syria’s three-way civil war but running a multi-million dollar “training program” to build up an army of so-called “moderate rebels” who could take on both Assad and the al Qaeda-ISIS factions of the resistance to him. The program was a fiasco: the first training class produced 55 fighters and the second graduated 72. And after Assad launched a poison gas attack against Syrian rebel strongholds in 2013 that was far deadlier than the one Trump’s raid was responding to — it reportedly killed over 1,000 people instead of just 70 — Obama announced that Assad had crossed a “red line” and the U.S. would soon start retaliating with air strikes in Syria.
But we didn’t. We didn’t because instead Obama cut a deal with Syria’s principal protector, Russian President Vladimir Putin, that if the U.S. agreed not to attack Syria, Syria would destroy all its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons — and Russia would guarantee that they would do so. Until last week, there was no evidence that Assad still had chemical weapons, though Russia had so extensively intervened in the Syrian civil war that the Assad government had essentially won by 2017. Among the things the Russians had done for Assad was send planes into Syria to bomb rebel positions, ostensibly to fight ISIS but actually to help Assad’s forces against all the armed enemies of his regime. Since the U.S. and Russia were supposedly working together in Syria to fight ISIS, the two countries’ air forces had worked out what was given the rather awkward name “deconfliction” — meaning that they talked to each other about whose planes would be bombing where so they didn’t risk crashing their planes into each other or shooting each other down.
Indeed, by 2017 Bashar al-Assad’s government had so decisively won the Syrian civil war — it had retaken all the major cities the rebels had once held and reduced the opposition to a handful of isolated fighters in the countryside — that in late March U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (the former CEO of Exxon/Mobil and the recipient from Vladimir Putin personally of the highest decoration the Russian government ever gives to non-Russians) announced that the future of Assad was “a matter for the Syrian people to decide.” He got ragged over this by Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell at MS-NBC, but I suspect the message Tillerson was sending to Assad was, “You won your war already. Now you can stop killing your own people.” Instead what Assad seems to have heard was, “Oh, goody! I won my war already. Now I can kill even more of my own people.”
One of the open questions in the U.S. attack on Syria was why Bashar al-Assad decided to launch the chemical weapons attack against Syrians in the first place. That’s a more interesting question than where the chemical weapons came from — whether he colluded with Russia to keep some stockpiles intact, he deceived the Russians and kept some back from destruction, or all the Syrian chemical weapons that existed in 2013 were destroyed but Assad’s people later made more. (Sarin, the gas allegedly used in the attack, is not that difficult a chemical to make. In 1995 a Japanese terrorist group called Aum Shinrikyo produced some and used it to attack the Tokyo subway system. The actual attackers were caught relatively quickly, but the chemists who made the sarin for them weren’t arrested until 2012.)
Why on earth would Assad stage a gas attack now? What did he have to gain? He’s an Alawite Shi’ite Muslim leading a country with a Sunni Muslim majority — which is why the world’s largest Shi’ite Muslim country, Iran, is his biggest ally next to Russia. If he’d left well enough alone, he could probably have won at least the sullen, reluctant support of Syrian Sunnis who would have concluded that, whatever the problems with him, Assad definitely counted as the lesser of two evils over ISIS. Now he’s got the lasting enmity of a lot of Sunni Syrians and risks re-emboldening the rebels.
Assad has also got the United States, whose officials were seemingly resigned to him staying in power indefinitely, denouncing him as the most uniquely evil person in the world. Indeed, on April 11 Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer, said on April 11 that even Adolf Hitler hadn’t stooped to using chemical weapons on the battlefield — which is historically accurate (Hitler had been the victim of a gas attack in World War I and was in a hospital recovering when that war ended, and the experience gave him a distaste for the use of gas in actual battles), but of course ignored the enormity of the Holocaust and the Nazis’ use of poison gas for the mass extermination of Jews and the Holocaust’s other, largely forgotten targets: Queers, Gypsies, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and people with disabilities. Given what’s happened to other petty tyrants, including Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein, once American officials started denouncing them as the most evil people in the world, if I were Assad I’d be awfully worried about my future and maybe I’d wonder if it was time to get out of the country and spend the rest of my life in Switzerland hiding amongst my secret bank accounts.
And it’s also an open question what Assad’s chemical attack has to offer his principal ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The attack happened at an odd juncture in U.S.-Russian relations. Whether Putin and his good buddies in Russian intelligence (which he used to run) had advance knowledge either of Assad’s actions or the U.S. response (and the latter, at least, seems likely because of the ongoing “deconfliction” program through which the U.S. and Russia routinely notified each other whenever either was going to strike ISIS positions inside Syria), certainly the blowup and Trump’s decision to attack a major Russian ally is going to make it that much harder to build better relations with Russia. At a time when the FBI and both houses of Congress are investigating the 2016 election to try to determine whether Russia’s attempts to influence the outcome were done with the knowledge — or, worse, the collusion — of Trump campaign officials, armed conflict between the U.S. and a Russian ally isn’t going to make it easier for Putin to build whatever ties he was hoping for with Trump and his administration.

What’s In It for Trump?

Still, for the man who ordered the air strike against Syria, Donald Trump, the attack has been an unalloyed positive. First of all, it’s arrested the bizarre slide in his public approval rating, which before the attack had dropped in just five months from the 46 percent of the popular vote he won on November 8, 2016 to a mere 35 percent — the lowest numbers any new President this early in his term had racked up since modern polling started. Now the polls are reporting that 51 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s attack on Syria, versus just 40 percent opposed.
Second, it’s likely laid to rest once and for all the accusation that Donald Trump is President only because Vladimir Putin wanted him to be and manipulated the American electoral process to achieve that result. The attack on that score has been led by, of all people, Trump’s son Eric, who’s publicly stated that the attack proves that Trump is not in Russia’s pocket. Since the FBI and Congressional investigations began in earnest, Trump has been desperately trying to change the subject, first sending the chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee to lobby the media not to publish stories about the alleged Trump/Russia connection, then accusing President Obama of wiretapping him during the campaign, then claiming that Obama’s foreign policy adviser Susan Rice had committed some unspecified crime and should be locked up (presumably in the cell next door to Hillary Clinton before he reneged on his promise to lock her up).
But where all the media lobbying and targeting of Obama and his people failed to knock the Trump-Russia investigation out of the media spotlight, the attack on Syria has brilliantly worked to change the conversation and made the American people see Trump as a bold, decisive leader who’s willing to risk war with a nuclear superpower to protect “babies, beautiful babies” and other victims of Syrian gas attacks. Indeed, a third appeal of the airstrike for Trump was that he could legitimately claim that he had the guts to do something Obama didn’t when Obama backed away from launching a U.S. strike against Syria in 2013. Never mind that back in 2013 Trump was using his favorite communications channel, Twitter, to tell Obama repeatedly that the U.S. had no business attacking Syria:
June 15, 2013: We should stay the hell out of Syria, the “rebels” are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $BILLIONS? ZERO.
August 29, 2013: What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long-term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval.
September 3, 2013: What I am saying is stay out of Syria.
September 5, 2013: AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA — IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!
September 9, 2013: Don’t attack Syria — an attack that will bring nothing but trouble for the U.S. Focus on making our country strong and great again!

For Trump, a master practitioner of what George Orwell in 1984 called doublethink — “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind, and accepting both of them” — it doesn’t matter in the slightest that in 2013 he was telling Obama that Obama would be making a big mistake if he launched an airstrike against Syria, and now he’s giving himself points for having the balls to do something wimpy little Obama, with his exaggerated concern for the feelings of foreign leaders and unwillingness to put “America First,” didn’t have the guts to do. It also reassures the world that the U.S. is still willing to be the world’s policeman, and that Trump’s oft-repeated “America First” mantra doesn’t, in his mind — at least his mind as it’s thinking this week — have the isolationist and tacitly pro-fascist connotations “America First” had in the late 1930’s, when it was the slogan of the movement to keep the U.S. out of World War II.
It also helps Trump, ironically, that the actual attack was so ineffectual — just a few holes shot in one runway of a two-runway airfield and 20 planes taken out of commission — because it’s yet another way in which his propagandists can sell the media and the rest of America on the idea that Trump is now being “Presidential.” The talk in the first few days after the strike was that it had been a “measured, proportionate response” to the Syrian gas attack — that it hadn’t been a full-fledged commitment of the U.S. military to change the regime in Syria, the way George W. Bush had done in Iraq and Barack Obama had in Libya (with disastrous results). Apparently the bar to accepting Donald John Trump as fully “Presidential” has been set so low that anything that doesn’t make him look stark, staring mad — like his capable delivery of his fully prepared, scripted and Telepromptered speech to both houses of Congress, or his “measured, proportionate” firing of a few Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield — makes him look good.
Which brings us to the final lesson of the Syrian attack: never underestimate Donald Trump. He has an extraordinary ability, verging on genius, to present at least the appearance and aura of invincibility. Through his shrewd ability to manipulate public perceptions, he’s been able to convinced a good chunk of America — enough to elect him President — that he is a sagacious business leader and the acme of competence. I’m convinced many people who voted for him were sure that Trump was a superb businessperson who had never lost on a deal — even though his actual business record was considerably more checkered than that, with some spectacular losses (like Atlantic City) next to some solid wins — because they’d seen him play the ultimate all-wise businessman on his TV show The Apprentice.

Throughout the campaign his rivals in both the Republican and Democratic parties were sure the latest revelation, the newest negative story, the most recent public meltdown would be the one that would bring down Donald Trump. They were all wrong. Nobody in the media or the commentariat thought Trump would ever be elected President … until he was. And the people who were wrong about him then are still making the same predictions that there’s something out there that will bring Trump down. So far, though, Trump’s record as a politician, like his record as a businessman, has been marked by an unerring ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Maybe the steady drip-drip-drip of accusations of scandal, corruption, self-dealing, foreign influence or just plain insanity will undermine and ultimately erode the strong, almost cult-like support Trump still enjoys among his base voters — or maybe Trump will continue to ride out all the storms and maintain control of the U.S. for the next quarter-century, since he’s obviously grooming Jared Kushner to succeed him and Ivanka Trump to succeed him when age and the 22nd Amendment catch up with him in 2024.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Donald Trump’s Budget and Health Plan: The Libertarian Apocalypse

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

If there’s anyone out there who still thinks Donald Trump is a “populist,” the two big things he’s dealing with the U.S. Congress about right now — his sweeping “America First” budget proposal and the Paul Ryan “American Health Care Act” he enthusiastically endorsed, only to see it ignominiously pulled on March 24 from a floor vote it was certain to lose — provide the definitive evidence that he isn’t. Indeed, Trump is exactly the sort of politician the original Populists of the 1890’s were fighting against: a super-rich man who bought his way into office and is running the government for the direct financial benefit of himself and his super-rich friends.
Trump’s identification with “populism” has somehow survived his actions in office. His very first executive order reversed an Obama-administration interest rate cut at the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) — meaning that Obama was trying to make it easier for people to buy homes and Trump made it harder again. Then Trump reversed a rule that would have forced managers of retirement funds to run them for the retirees instead of for their own benefit, a clear message to people in the financial industry that Trump plan to let them rip off their clients as much as they want. Some “populist”!
It got even worse when Trump started picking his Cabinet officials and the people he was going to have run the various federal agencies. Despite his much-ballyhooed promise that he would leave Social Security and Medicare alone, he appointed as Secretary of Health and Human Services Congressmember Tom Price, a long-time advocate of privatizing both. He put Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a disbeliever in human-caused climate change fond of suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and cutting and pasting his lawsuits from oil industry documents, in charge of the EPA. Indeed, Trump emphasized his fealty to the oil and gas industry, and to fossil fuels in general, by appointing former Exxon/Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and former Texas Governor Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy.
Trump picked Wall Street attorney Jay Clayton to run the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which is supposed to protect individual investors from market rip-offs, and he said he got advice on the appointment from Jamie Dimon, CEO of Citibank. To run the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Trump picked Scott Gottlieb, former consultant to Vertex and other drug companies whose products he’s supposed to be regulating. Who knew that when Trump promised to “drain the swamp,” he’d be packing his administration with the dregs?
Trump’s basic hostility to most of what the government does is widely shared by his party — which is why, despite exaggerated reports of hostility between him and Congressional Republicans, most of what they’ve done has been in lock-step. Quite simply, Trump has adopted whole-hog the extreme economic Libertarianism of the current Republican Party. His actions since he took office have answered the question, much asked during his campaign, of just when he thought America was “great” and what was the era to which he wanted to return to “make America great again.”
It’s the 1880’s, the time just before the Populist movement emerged, in which offices in the U.S. government (especially the Senate, which was still elected by state legislators instead of directly by voters) were openly bought and sold, financial and industrial capitalist “robber barons” ran amok, wages and farm prices were relentlessly driven down, workers had no health or safety protections, the economy regularly collapsed in what were then called “panics” (later “depressions” or “recessions”), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations were “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment and declared minimum-wage laws and organized labor illegal, African-Americans who had been enfranchised by Reconstruction were pushed back into second-class citizenship, and the environment wasn’t even considered a political or social issue.
The original Populists emerged in the 1890’s precisely to oppose at least some of those policies. They were wildly split on race — some white Populists wanted to enlist Blacks and other U.S.-born people of color as partners in the movement, while others were racist and regarded them as a threat — and they pretty generally opposed immigration for the same reason Trump and his voters do: they regarded immigrants as a workforce that would take their jobs away. (Trump’s idea of America’s golden age on immigration is considerably later than the 1880’s: the period from 1924 to 1965, in which a restrictive quota system ensured that most documented immigrants to the U.S. would be European and therefore the U.S. would remain a white-majority country.)
But on most of the economic issues, the 1890’s Populists took positions diametrically opposed to Trump’s, his party’s and his voters’ today. They wanted more government regulation of private business, not less. They wanted education, utilities, transportation and other basic services to be publicly owned, not privatized. They wanted an aggressive government that would look out for the interests of the ordinary people and rein in the power of the giant corporations who were combining into huge trusts and grabbing virtually absolute economic power.
And they got at least part of what they wanted under a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, who served from 1901 to 1909 and had his faults — he was an imperialist in foreign policy and was personally racist — but was a stronger opponent of corporate power than anyone who’d been in the White House before him. In 1903, Roosevelt mediated a labor battle between coal companies and the United Mine Workers and tried to broker a fair settlement instead of automatically taking the side of the owners against the workers. He launched the first serious efforts by the U.S. government to protect public lands and restrict corporate devastation of the environment. And in 1908, he signed into law the Railway Act, which not only established government regulation of interstate railroads but also created the system of “rule-making” by which executive regulatory agencies are granted the power to create “rules” that enable them to do their jobs without constantly having to run to Congress for new authority.

Undoing 130 Years of Protecting Ordinary People

This history lesson is important to understand both the breadth and the longevity of the worker, consumer and environmental protections President Trump and the Republicans in Congress and his administration plan to undo. Their program is based, not on the actually lived experience of America in the era of industrial and post-industrial capitalism, but on a fanatically held ideology that believes that the rich are inherently superior to the rest of humanity; that they are therefore entitled to most of the wealth and income of a society; and that attempts to tax or regulate them are thus not only bad public policy but downright immoral.
This ideology, which today is generally known as Libertarianism, can be traced at least as far back as John Calvin, the religious leader who founded Puritanism. Calvin preached that only certain individuals were worthy of going to Heaven, and God’s way of revealing who was “predestined” for Heaven and who was condemned to hell was their material success (or lack thereof) in this world. In 1851, eight years before Charles Darwin first published the theory of evolution in his book The Origin of Species, British philosopher Herbert Spencer put out a book called Social Statics that, along with his later writings, outlined a philosophy that came to be known as “Social Darwinism.” Social Darwinism held that the evolution of the human race was still going on, and by their skill at making more money than their fellows the newly rich of the late 19th century were showing their superiority as a species.
But Libertarianism as we know it today is basically the product of three people from the mid-20th century: economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek and novelist and essayist Ayn Rand. They saw the Soviet Union degenerate into tyranny following the 1917 Russian Revolution and reached the conclusion that any attempt to interfere with the freedom of capitalists to do whatever they wanted would produce a similar result. When the Soviet Union emerged as U.S.’s principal enemy following the end of World War II, their ideas became popular with many Americans. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1948) and Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) became best-sellers and foundational texts for the U.S. conservative movement.
The basic tenet of Libertarianism is that the individual reigns supreme and that no one has any responsibility to help or care for anyone else. As Rand put it in what has become the Libertarian creed, “I will not live my life for any other person, nor ask any other person to live his life for mine.” Libertarians also believe that all socially created value comes not from workers, but from the entrepreneurs (the “makers,” Rand called them) who create the industries in which they work — and therefore the “makers” are entitled to the full value of what those industries produce. Much of Libertarianism was developed as a spit-in-the-eye response to the theories of Karl Marx, who among other things lamented that left alone, without any government or social control, capitalists would inevitably drive workers’ wages to subsistence levels — i.e., they would pay their employees the bare minimum they needed to survive.
Libertarians believe that driving workers’ wages to subsistence levels is a good thing. While progressives, liberals and even some more traditional conservatives lament the increasing inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. and throughout the developed world, Libertarians believe that the more economically unequal a society is, the better, because it means the “makers” are getting the lion’s share of what their genius produces and all others, slammed by Rand as “moochers” or “takers,” are getting the pittances they deserve.
Thus, Libertarians believe that programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the subsidies under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”) to help lower-income people buy health insurance are not only bad public policy, but are downright immoral. That’s because they believe that taxation is theft, and taxing the rich to redistribute money to the not-rich is particularly evil. Libertarians say that if rich people choose voluntarily to help not-rich people through private charity, that’s morally O.K. (though Rand made it clear in the plots of her novels that the rich people she liked best were the ones who didn’t do that), but they believe that when government taxes the rich to pay for social programs for the not-rich, it is literally enslaving the rich to the not-rich.
Libertarians believe there are only three legitimate functions for government: 1) To maintain a military so the nation can defend itself against foreign enemies. 2) To maintain a criminal-justice system so individuals and corporations can be defended against threats to their lives, liberties and properties. 3) To maintain a civil-justice system so conflicts between individuals — including corporations, which like the U.S. Supreme Court in 1886 they regard as the moral equivalents of flesh-and-blood human beings — can be resolved peaceably through legal process instead of violence.
Another aspect of Libertarianism is its intense reverence for “The Market” as the sole determinant not only of commercial but intrinsic worth. Libertarians believe that if something can’t prove its worth in the commercial marketplace — if it can’t be sold for more money than it costs to make, and in the process enrich the capitalist who bankrolled its production — it simply doesn’t deserve to exist. That, along with their idea that taxation is theft and taxing the rich turns them into slaves to the not-rich, is why Libertarians oppose public broadcasting and government funding for the arts and humanities.
This reverence for “The Market” also shapes the Libertarian attitude towards health care. They regard health as an industry like any other, selling a product that people ought to be able to access only if they can afford to pay for it. That’s why the “American Health Care Act,” the Republican alternative to the Affordable Care Act, which recently flopped so badly House Speaker Paul Ryan didn’t dare bring it to a vote, included eliminating the requirements that health insurance plans cover such basics as preventive health screening and maternity care.
It contained a plan for so-called “Health Savings Accounts” that would have given individuals a tax break if they funded their own health care — something that, as opponents of the bill pointed out, would be far easier for rich than non-rich people to do. And it would have allowed insurance companies to sell policies across state lines, which critics pointed out would lead to low-ball so-called “health insurance” policies that had lower price tags than current ones but would have so many exclusions and such high deductibles they would be virtually useless if you got sick.
One other aspect of Libertarianism that is strongly influencing the policies of President Trump and the Republicans in Congress is its visceral hatred for any laws that attempt to protect the environment. Not only do Libertarians reject the idea that government has a legitimate role in protecting workers from abusive employers — if your job threatens your health or safety, they say, you should just quit — they regard laws to protect the environment as yet more attempts by “moochers” and “takers” to get in the way of the genius of capitalist entrepreneurs. Ayn Rand believed that capitalists were so powerful they could literally change the laws of physics; John Galt, the mystery hero of Atlas Shrugged whose disappearance powers the book’s plot, turns out to have invented a motor that runs on air.
Perhaps the strongest statement of the Libertarian credo from a Presidential candidate came from the last Republican nominee before Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, on May 17, 2012. Speaking at a private fundraiser in Florida among some of his fellow 0.01-percenters, Romney said, “In every stump speech I give, I speak about the fact that people who dream and achieve enormous success do not make us poorer — they make us better off. And the Republican audience that I typically speak to applauds.” Then, in the part that was quoted most when the secret recording of it was made public in September 2012, he showed his Libertarian contempt for the less fortunate people who were supporting his opponent, then-President Obama.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney said. “[T]here are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That — that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

A Philosophy for Bullies

The influence of Libertarian ideas on the current Republican Party is a well-documented fact. When House Speaker Paul Ryan ran for Vice-President on Mitt Romney’s ticket in 2012, it was widely reported that when he hired anyone for his Congressional staff, he gave them a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and told them to read it so they would know what he expected of them. David Koch, who along with his brother Charles funds groups like the Americans for Prosperity that enforce Libertarian discipline on the Republican Party by choosing which candidates to fund, actually bought his way onto the Libertarian Party ticket for Vice-President in 1972. He offered the party a large contribution if they put him on the ticket — and the party accepted because they realized he was just following Libertarian principles by treating political office as a commodity to be purchased like any other.
Donald Trump wasn’t especially known as a Libertarian before he ran for President in 2016, but the Libertarian philosophy is congenial to him both politically and personally. Trump is neither a self-made man nor a trust-fund baby; he inherited a substantial fortune from his father but built it through his own efforts into a much larger one. At the same time he and his family were looked down on by the business establishment of New York City because they had started in the city’s outer boroughs and, until Trump took over, had never cracked the sacred precincts of Manhattan. Much of Trump’s fabled truculence, his insistence that if anyone hits you, you should hit them back 10 times as hard, comes from the status anxiety he felt growing up, the sense that other people with money didn’t accept him as being a legitimate part of their club.
Libertarianism fits Donald Trump personally because it allows him to regard himself as a superior being, entitled to make all the money he wants no matter how many lesser individuals he has to screw over in the process. And it fits him politically because it reinforces his instinctive bias that the purpose of government is to protect rich and super-rich people like himself against the demands of everyone else. Trump is and always has been a bully, and Libertarianism is a philosophy that exalts bullying and tells the already powerful that they have a right to their power, and that includes the right to lash out at, and if necessary utterly destroy, anyone who stands in their way.
Donald Trump didn’t run for President as a Libertarian, but he’s certainly governing as one. His endorsement of Paul Ryan’s Libertarian health care plan — which Ryan and his fellow Libertarians in Congress saw as just step one in dismantling the entire social welfare state, starting with the Affordable Care Act and working through Medicaid, then Medicare and finally the last and biggest target, Social Security — showed that. So did his Cabinet appointments, which have come almost exclusively from ideologically Libertarian Republican Congressmembers, corporate officials and military leaders. And so did the draft budget he presented in mid-March, which increased spending for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, left alone Social Security and Medicare (for now) and took a meat ax to just about everything else the federal government does.
It slashed funding for the National Institutes of Health — because Libertarians believe that private capital, not tax money, should fund scientific research. It zeroed out the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Those were easy targets not only because the religious Right, who have been junior partners to the Libertarian Right in the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, hates them because they provide alternatives to their narrow “moral” view of the world, but because the Libertarian philosophy holds that it’s no damned business of government to improve access to arts, culture and knowledge for people who can’t afford to pay the full market cost of them.
Trump’s budget also specifically attacked any program by which the federal government might document the existence of human-caused climate change or develop and implement renewable energy. Trump’s visceral denial of humans’ role in climate change seems to have a lot of roots in his personality, specifically in his exaggerated sense of machismo. Part of the American Right’s opposition to environmental protection and renewable energy seems to come from a perception that “real men” get their energy from inside the ground, either drilling for oil or digging for coal. It’s only useless, feminized wimps who get their energy from ground level or above — from solar, wind, geothermal or hydropower.
But it also is supported by the radical religious Right, who regard it literally as blasphemous that humans could do anything that could threaten the survival of their species on earth — only God can do that, they claim. And it’s also part of the Libertarian creed that environmental regulations, like regulations in general, just get in the way of the heroic capitalists who create all value and without whom we’d still be living in the Dark Ages. (This aggressive anti-environmentalism seems unique to American Right-wingers; elsewhere in the world the Right seems to be aware that the words “conservative” and “conservation” come from the same root and capitalists aren’t going to be able to make any money if humans destroy the earth environment that sustains them.)
Trump’s budget not only slashes funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds research in clean-energy alternatives to fossil fuels, he also cut the budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). What’s more, he cut NASA in a specific way, leaving its space flight programs in place but cutting way back on its research into climate. One fear climate scientists have toward the Trump administration is it may simply have NASA stop launching weather satellites, which have produced much of the information that has documented that human activity is indeed changing the earth’s climate.
Also, despite Trump’s phony “populist” rhetoric during the campaign, much of his budget directly targets programs helping the people who voted for him and gave him his unlikely victory. As John Cassidy noted in a New Yorker post on March 16 (http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/donald-trumps-voldemort-budget?intcid=mod-latest), “While Trump would leave in place the subsidies that the Department of Agriculture provides to ‘Big Agra,’ he would scale back programs aimed at small farmers and workers, such as the Rural Business-Cooperative Service, which promotes rural development and the spread of co-operatives. The budget would also eliminate a number of federal agencies charged with spurring development in specific deprived areas of the country, many of which voted for Trump. The Appalachian Regional Commission would be killed; so would the Mississippi River region’s Delta Regional Authority.”
Trump’s budget also implements his Libertarian agenda by directly targeting social services lower-income people rely on. “At the Department of Housing, for example, Trump would eliminate the three-billion-dollar Community Development Block Grant program, which helps big cities pay for affordable housing, slum clearance, and many other things, including the delivery of hot meals to home-bound seniors,” Cassidy wrote. “At the Department of Education, cuts would be made to two programs designed to prepare low-income students for college, and to a work-study program that helps those students pay their way through school once they’re there.”
Throughout Trump’s budget, his personal definition of power as the ability to throw his weight around and boss the rest of the world interacts with the Libertarian concept of government as a force to protect the powerful and screw over everyone else. On foreign policy, Cassidy wrote, “Someone in the Trump Administration appears to have gone through the entire budget looking to eliminate funding for small entities that try to do some good. 
“These include the Africa Development Foundation, an independent organization that provides grants to small businesses and community groups in some of the world’s poorest countries, and the Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan organization, founded in 1984, that supports efforts to resolve violent conflict, promote gender equality, and strengthen the rule of law around the world. The budget would even eliminate a program co-founded by Bob Dole, who backed Trump in the Republican primary: the McGovern-Dole Food for International Education Program, which helps provide school meals and nutritional programs in impoverished nations.”
In George Orwell’s novel 1984, O’Brien, the representative of the all-powerful Inner Party that rules the dystopian dictatorship, tells the book’s hero, Winston Smith, that his vision of the future is “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” For all its pretensions of celebrating individual freedom, a Libertarian society in practice would be a handful of wealthy, privileged people stamping on the faces of everyone else forever. Whatever their differences, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and the handful of Republican Congressmembers in the so-called “Freedom Caucus” who sandbagged the American Health Care Act because it wasn’t tough enough and didn’t throw as many people off of access to health care as they wanted share that cruel vision, and they mean to use the full power of the U.S. government to bring it about.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Donald Trump: Republican on Steroids

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In the 1934 film Viva Villa!, classic Hollywood’s weird but compelling depiction of the 1910 Mexican revolution, Francisco “Pancho” Villa (Wallace Beery) assumes the presidency of war-torn Mexico after the assassination of his predecessor, Francisco Madero (Henry B. Walthall.) In his first speech as the new President, Villa announces that he’s going to continue the program of the late Madero, but he’s going to be much more forceful about it. He says Madero’s weakness, and in particular his attempts to negotiate with his political adversaries and seek common ground, were the reasons he failed and ultimately got killed. So, implementing Madero’s liberal program with an iron hand, he ultimately becomes a bloodthirsty dictator.
That, in a nutshell, is the difference between Donald John Trump and his immediate predecessors as Republican Presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. All were united in their determination to end government’s involvement in protecting the lives and health of working Americans, privatize or eliminate safety-net programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, allow corporate leaders free rein to do just about anything they want without regard to the consequences for either the economy or the environment, build up the U.S.’s already swollen investments in military personnel and hardware, and get government out of corporate boardrooms while using its power to micromanage what happens in people’s bedrooms, particularly how they express themselves sexually and deal with the consequences therefrom.
During the campaign Trump gained a thoroughly unearned reputation as a “populist.” He isn’t. His choice of fellow billionaire CEO’s like Rex Tillerson of Exxon as Secretary of State and Steven Mnuchin as Secretary of the Treasury (Trump is at least the fourth President in a row to pick a Treasury Secretary that used to work for Goldman Sachs) showed that, instead of “draining the swamp,” he’s dredging up the swamp creatures and putting them in his government. His pick of Georgia Congressmember Tom Price, longtime advocate of privatizing Social Security and Medicare, as Secretary of Health and Human Services gave the lie to the promises he made during the primary campaign to protect those programs — lies that no doubt got him a lot of votes among nervous Republican senior citizens who heard all the other candidates be honest that they planned to cut them.
Trump’s very first action as President was to rescind a mortgage rate cut by the Federal Home Administration (FHA) that would, if it had been allowed to take effect, have made it easier for ordinary Americans to buy homes. His nominee for Secretary of Labor, fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder, said flat-out that people who work in his industry don’t deserve a $15/hour wage. Two weeks after his election, Trump appeared publicly in Washington, D.C. with one of the slimiest of Wall Street’s swamp creatures, Citibank CEO Jamie Dimon, to announce that he was issuing executive orders gutting the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill passed in 2010 to try to keep Wall Street financiers from melting down the economy again the way they did in 2008. Trump said “there’s nobody better” to advise him about financial policy than Dimon, and one of his actions was to get rid of an Obama-era rule proposal that would have made it illegal for administrators of retirement funds to enrich themselves at the expense of their clients.
What’s more, Trump’s practice of stocking his administration with people who fundamentally don’t believe in the missions of the departments they’re supposed to administer — an Environmental Protection Agency head, Scott Pruitt, who routinely sued the EPA to allow his state to pollute more (while, in his confirmation hearings, questioning whether he’ll continue to allow California to set tougher clean-air rules so the state pollutes less); a Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who’s campaigned to effectively destroy public education in her home state, Michigan, through voucher programs and charter schools; a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, who not only has no track record administering anything but has said he doesn’t believe in public housing — has its origins in previous Republican Presidents dating back at least as far back as Richard Nixon.
In 1973 Nixon, flush from his landslide re-election and before the Watergate scandal cost him his political capital, appointed far-Right Howard Phillips to head the Office of Economic Opportunity, the agency formed under his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, to carry out the War on Poverty. Phillips made no secret of his disdain for the whole idea of the federal government trying to end poverty, and he later quit the Republican Party because it wasn’t conservative enough for him and ran for President as candidate of the Constitution Party, the remnants of George Wallace’s old American Independent Party.
In 1981 Ronald Reagan likewise appointed Anne M. Gorsuch to run the Environmental Protection Agency even though she, like Scott Pruitt, made no secret of her opposition to the EPA and everything it’s supposed to do — and she was eventually driven out of office. There could be no more vivid demonstration of how tightly Trump’s issue priorities fit into those of his Republican predecessors than his recent appointment of Gorsuch’s son Neil to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attitude, Not Policy

What separates Trump from Reagan and the two Bushes is not his basic policy — it’s the same mix of economic libertarianism, social conservatism and military bluster that has sustained the Republican party nationally for 40 years or more — but his take-no-prisoners attitude towards implementing it. Reagan talked in his speeches of America as “a shining city on a hill.” George H. W. Bush called for a “kinder, gentler America.” His son George W. Bush called himself a “compassionate conservative.”
Not Donald Trump. His speeches are dark, apocalyptic, describing an America literally on the point of collapse and one that, as he said at the Republican Convention last summer, “only I can fix.” Everything we know about Trump as a businessman, a politician and a human being shows that he has no kindness, gentleness or compassion in his heart at all. To Trump, kindness, gentleness and compassion are the marks of losers and wimps.
Whereas George W. Bush disguised that his administration planned to use torture in the “war on terror” — they cooked up the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” and then further abbreviated that as “EIT’s” — Trump proudly embraced the T-word and said, “Torture works.” (People who’ve actually fought wars, including Trump’s Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, know it doesn’t.) As Trump and his ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, put it in Trump’s first book, The Art of the Deal, “My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”
In just two weeks, Trump has shown that he’s going to govern the country the same way he ran the Trump Organization: with total self-righteous belief in his own genius and course, a fierce intolerance with dissent both from within and without, a Manichean division of the country into “us” — the people who elected him — and “them,” who didn’t, and an insulting, vindictive response to anyone who criticizes him, from John McCain (“weak”) to Meryl Streep (“overrated”). As Atlantic and Los Angeles Times columnist Ronald Brownstein wrote on January 26 (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/are-liberals-launching-their-own-tea-party/514403/), “Trump’s tumultuous first week made clear that even after his narrow victory he is determined to pursue the sweeping policy changes, at home and abroad, that typically follow a landslide.”
Indeed, I think Trump’s attitude towards power is even worse than Brownstein’s description. In the first 14 days of his Presidency he signed no fewer than 20 executive orders, and he reportedly has his staff carrying around the texts of further executive orders he can sign in whatever sequence pleases him at any given moment. What’s more, instead of signing his executive orders in his office and handing them to his staff to implement, he’s staging full-blown ceremonies in which he’s photographed sweeping his signature across them using a giant Sharpie, I guess because any less flamboyant writing instrument wouldn’t be big enough for his … hands.
I’m old enough to remember that when Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, the bills creating Medicare and Medicaid, and the other landmarks of his administration, he used a separate pen for each letter of his name so he could give them to the people, both elected officials and grass-roots activists, who had helped steer them through Congress. Not Trump: he’s presented with each executive order in a beautiful leather case and he sweeps his Sharpie across each one in a huge signature that sends the visual message, “This is what I am doing for you. No one but me had anything to do with it at all.”
The effect is a striking visual demonstration of how Trump views the Presidency: not as a powerful but Constitutionally limited office to which he has been elected to do the people’s will, but as a plebiscitary dictatorship which allows him to do whatever he wants at any time. When he sweeps his hand and his big Sharpie across those leather-encased orders he looks less like a democratically elected leader than like a general who’s just taken power in a coup d’├ętat and is ruling by decree. As Trump himself said at a rally in Louisiana shortly after his election, “I don’t need your votes anymore. Maybe in four years I will.” In Trump’s world, he’s an absolute dictator and the only recourse the American people have against him is to vote not to renew his option when it comes up four years from now.
And what Trump is planning to do with the dictatorial power he has — or at least thinks he has ­— is fundamentally remake America as completely as Lenin remade Russia after November 1917 or Hitler remade Germany after January 1933. During the 2016 campaigns Democrats, frantically looking for traction against the Trump phenomenon, sometimes asked the rhetorical question, “When does Trump believes America was ‘great’ and what’s the era he wants to return to so it will be ‘great again’?”
Now we know: the 1880’s, when the power of giant corporations to pay their workers pittances, run unsafe workplaces that killed many of them, combine into ever-larger monopolistic trusts, openly buy elective office for themselves or their stooges, and pollute the environment to their hearts’ contents was unchallenged. Trump wants to return to the era in which the federal government pulled back from its commitment to protect African-Americans in the South, and the Supreme Court routinely overruled civil rights legislation designed to protect people of color and first declared that corporations were “persons” and therefore had political, economic and social rights equivalent to those of live human beings.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise because Ayn Rand, the founder of the Libertarian political and economic philosophy that dominates the Republican party, named the 1880’s as the greatest decade in American history, before the original Populists started organizing and demanding reforms that are anathema to the supposed “populist” Trump: laws to break up the big monopolies that controlled the economy, protect workers’ health and safety on the job, ensure them at least a somewhat livable wage and have public utilities owned by the public, not for-profit corporations. The great irony of the constant references to Trump as a “populist” is that his program will return the U.S. to the state of total corporate power the real Populists of the 1890’s were rebelling against!

Immigration

On at least one major issue, immigration, Trump’s idea of when America was “great” and to which it needs to return to become “great again” is considerably later than the 1880’s. It’s 1924, when Congress passed and Republican President Calvin Coolidge signed the most restrictive anti-immigration bill in U.S. history. Not only did it drastically cut the opportunities for documented (so-called “legal”) immigration into the U.S., it assigned each nation in the world a specific quota of how many people it could send here as immigrants. The law gave by far the largest quotas to European countries, because it was designed to make sure the U.S. remained a nation with a white majority — and it achieved that goal. This bill was the basis of U.S. immigration policy for 41 years, until U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) pushed through a reform in 1965 that, among other things, made it illegal for U.S. immigration policy to discriminate against any particular nation.
Though Trump made a lot of attacks on so-called “illegal” immigrants during his campaign and promised, among other things, to build a wall across the entire 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico (already the most highly fortified border in the world between two countries that aren’t actually at war with each other), one speech he gave on immigration was virtually ignored. It called for a drastic cutback in the number of visas available to immigrants seeking to enter the U.S. lawfully, and it was based largely on the ideas of a writer named Peter Brimelow. I first encountered Brimelow’s name in the 1980’s, when I was researching an article on immigration and found a series of articles he wrote for the National Review, later collected into a book called Alien Nation, in which he said the U.S. needed drastic cutbacks in documented immigration to, as he put it, “preserve the ethnic mix” of the U.S. — in other words, to keep America a white-majority country and reverse the demographic trends that threaten that status.
So it was no surprise when Brimelow turned up as an advisor to Trump on immigration policy and Trump gave a speech last summer that echoed Brimelow’s program: severe cutbacks on documented immigration, a shift away from reuniting families as the basis of U.S. immigration policy (as it has been since Kennedy’s 1965 bill that replaced the quota system) and towards targeted immigrants who have marketable skills for high-end employment. It also was no surprise when Brimelow turned up at that remarkable rally celebrating Trump’s victory headed by white-supremacist “alt-Right” activist Richard Spencer, in which Spencer led the crowd in chants of “Hail Trump!” and the stiff-armed Nazi salute.
And it’s been no surprise that immigration — the issue that catapulted Trump to the top of the Republican primary field when he announced his candidacy in June 2015 and helped keep him there and ultimately win him the election — is the issue on which Trump has faced the most volatile controversy of his first three weeks in office. On January 25, Trump issued a sweeping executive order putting all admissions of political refugees into the U.S. on hold for 120 days, and designating immigrants and travelers from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — for a 90-day ban (an indefinite ban in Syria’s case) and so-called “extreme vetting.” Trump presented this as an anti-terror move rather than an implementation of his campaign promise to ban all immigration from Muslim countries. “This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe,” he said, and he denounced anyone who questioned it (including U.S. Senator and 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain) as “weak” on fighting terrorism.
Yet, as MS-NBC prime-time host Rachel Maddow noted on the day the order was issued, none of the lethal terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the last 16 years, from September 11, 2001 to date, have been committed by nationals (or descendants of nationals) of any of the seven countries on Trump’s list. Other commentators noted that nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, from which the leaders of al-Qaeda and most of the 9/11 hijackers actually came, contain hotels or other businesses with Trump’s name on them while the seven he singled out don’t. What’s more, as Maddow pointed out, Trump issued his order on Holocaust Remembrance Day — and one of the aspects the Remembrance Day is supposed to make us remember is that by refusing to admit Jewish refugees from Europe in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, the U.S. sent them back home, where many were caught up in the Holocaust and killed in the death camps.
Since I began writing this article, Trump’s sweeping executive order has been challenged in the courts, and a federal district judge in Seattle, Jason L. Robart — originally appointed by George W. Bush and confirmed by a Republican Senate — slapped a temporary restraining order to keep it from staying in effect. Trump’s response was predictable: he denounced Robart as a “so-called judge” and said that if another terror attack occurs, the blood will be on Judge Robart’s hands. Robart’s order was upheld unanimously by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, and Trump got even more furious when he, like much of the country, listened to the hearing on his order and heard the judge daring to question whether Trump could just declare everyone from seven specific countries persona non grata without any evidence.
As Amy Davidson noted in a February 8 post on the New Yorker Web site (http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/the-ninth-circuit-and-president-trumps-lies), August Flentje, the Trump administration’s lawyer, said that putting a hold on Trump’s order “overrides the President’s national-security judgment about the level of risk,” One of the judges, Michelle Friedland — another Bush appointee — asked Flentje, “Have you offered any evidence to support this need you’re describing for the executive order, or are you really arguing that we can’t even ask about whether there’s evidence because this decision is non-reviewable?”
“Well, the President determined that there was a real risk,” Flentje replied, making it clear that his position was that Trump had sole authority to decide which immigrants from which countries posed a risk to the American people, and the courts had no right to review or question his decisions. It sure sounded an awful lot like former President Richard Nixon’s infamous statement to interviewer David Frost in 1977 that “when the President does it, that means it is not illegal.” Trump has already made clear in a lot of ways his belief that he’s above the law: he’s seized on an obscure 1970’s statute to claim that he can’t be held to any of the conflict-of-interest restrictions that cover all other employees of the U.S. government, and he’s insisted that he will never release his tax returns publicly and it doesn’t matter because the only people who care are reporters.
When Trump lost at the Ninth Circuit, his first response was to issue a defiant set of tweets in all caps that said, “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” Since then, he’s come up with a way to have his cake and eat it too: he’ll withdraw the executive order in question, thereby invalidating the whole case, and just write a new one (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/white-house-considers-rewriting-trumps-immigration-order/2017/02/10/ddcf5a6a-efb5-11e6-b4ff-ac2cf509efe5_story.html?utm_term=.5de129133e39). One can imagine this process going on forever: Trump’s previous order gets thrown out, he writes another one and throws people out of the country based on it, then when that order gets thrown out he just writes another, and so on.

TrumpAmerica: No Checks, No Balances

January 19, 2017 was the last day of the United States of America, a relatively free and democratic nation-state governed by the rule of law. Since then we have lived in TrumpAmerica (branding is everything!), a petty dictatorship governed by the whims of one man and the ideology of one political party. TrumpAmerica is an ever more frightening place to live, but the scariest aspect of it is how helpless we are in the face of Trump’s and the Republicans’ assault on basic human, social and political values and how little hope there is that anyone or anything will stop him.
Not the Republicans, certainly. The hopes some people had that Trump didn’t have a set of deeply held ideological convictions were dashed early on when Trump adopted whole-hog the conventional orthodoxy of the Republican party on issue after issue: giveaway tax cuts for the rich; abolishing government regulation of business, the environment, workers’ and consumers’ health and safety, or anything else; rollbacks of civil-rights protections for people of color, women and Queers; abolition of women’s right to reproductive choice and defunding any organization that defends it; ending “Net Neutrality” and thereby allowing Right-wing voices to monopolize the Internet as they have done with every other medium of electronic communication; and even such a long-standing and definitely ideologically driven priority as getting rid of public broadcasting and government funding for the arts.
I think Adam Johnson went a bit too far in his February 10 Los Angeles Times column, “Stop comparing Trump to foreign leaders. He’s a distinctly American phenomenon” (http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-johnson-trump-is-like-x-20170210-story.html#nt=oft12aH-3li3), in saying that Trump shouldn’t be compared to other countries’ authoritarian leaders. Certainly studying how other countries transitioned from democracy to dictatorship — Russia in 1917 and again in 2000, Germany in 1933, Venezuela in 1989, Hungary in 2010, Turkey in 2014, the Philippines in 2016 — can offer valuable comparisons to Trump’s rise in the U.S., even though it can also be depressing to see from those examples how difficult it is to restore democracy once a pseudo-populist demagogue has seized power and set out to destroy it.
But Johnson is absolutely right when he says, “Trump’s agenda is largely the same as the broader Republican Party; his rise, moreover, was the logical manifestation of the xenophobic, ‘insurgent’ tea party movement — funded and supported not by foreign governments, but by entirely domestic billionaires. … The groundwork for Trump was laid by Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, Fox News and the Drudge Report. All pushed the limits of ‘post-truth,’ all spent years stoking white grievance, demonizing immigrants, spreading ‘Black-on-white crime’ panic. Trump is a raw, unfiltered expression of American nativism and white grievance. The effort to stop Trump would be better served attacking these threads — and their specific Right-wing ideology — than continuing to draw lazy parallels to foreign enemies in bad standing with the U.S. national security establishment.”
That’s why, despite the visible distaste of old-line establishment Republicans for Trump, he’s getting his way on virtually every issue he’s bothered to present to Congress — most notably his choices for his Cabinet, who are being ratified one by one in the U.S. Senate. Aside from the two Republican Senators who dissented on Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, all Trump’s Cabinet choices have won the lock-step support of all 52 Republican Senators. And, as Johnson writes, “There’s a reason why Republican senators from John McCain to Marco Rubio have voted to confirm Trump’s nominees: They basically agree with him.” The Republican establishment has reacted to Trump largely the way the old-line German Right did to Hitler: at first they denounced him as a pretentious lower-class parvenu who wasn’t even German (Hitler was Austrian), but when he looked like he was about to assume power they supported, embraced and gave money to him because they realized he was about to implement their agenda: suppressing the Left and the unions, rebuilding Germany’s military and (dare I say it?) “making Germany great again.”
So don’t hold out any hope that dissident Republicans will stop Trump. And don’t hold out much hope that the Democrats will stop him, either. The Democrats have fallen so far so fast in the last eight years that Time magazine just ran a cover story asking if they still matter. The Republicans have gained absolute power in Washington, D.C. largely by shrewdly exploiting the anti-democratic provisions originally built into the U.S. Constitution — the makeup of the U.S. Senate, the Electoral College and the near-total control state legislatures have over determining who can vote and drawing legislative districts. They have carefully and savvily made sure they control as many state governments as possible, and in state after state they are zipping through a hard-Right legislative agenda at warp speed (see “State G.O.P. Leaders Move Quickly as Party Bickers in Congress,” New York Times, February 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/11/us/state-republican-leaders-move-swiftly.html?_r=0).
While the Republicans have focused on where political power really resides in the U.S. — in Congress and, even more emphatically, in the states — the Democrats have been way too concerned about the Presidency. The result was that, once they lost the Oval Office in the 2016 election, they had literally nothing to fall back on. As I’ve pointed out in these pages before, the so-called “Obama coalition” was able to elect only one person — Obama himself. Otherwise the Obama years were one political disaster for the Democrats after another, culminating in the 2016 rout and the rise of TrumpAmerica. Even if more Americans vote for Democrats than Republicans, not only for President but Congress, that’s largely meaningless because it’s where and how those votes are distributed that really counts. Indeed, if I were running the Democratic Party right now I’d forget about Congress and the Presidency and focus on the battles where the real future of American politics will be decided: control of the states.
The Democrats have several handicaps that severely limit their ability to act as a restraining force on Trump and the Republicans. First, unlike the Republican Party, which is ideologically unified along an agenda of economic libertarianism and social conservative, the Democrats remain a mixed party, an uneasy and contentious blend of progressives and pro-corporate moderates. Second, while the interests of the grass-roots activists and the corporate donors to the Republican Party are basically the same — both want government out of the boardrooms and into the bedrooms — the Democrats’ big donors have fundamentally different interests from the Democrats’ young activists. (That was one reason why the primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was so bitter, and why Clinton lost so many of Sanders’ voters: either they stayed home, they threw their votes away on alternative-party candidates, or, in many of the Rust Belt states that were key to Trump’s victory, they actually voted for Trump.)
What’s more, the Democrats can’t copy the strategy the Republicans used so effectively against Obama — do what we want or we shut down the government — because the Democrats actually want government to work. The Republicans’ key constituencies don’t suffer — or at least they don’t believe they suffer — when the government shuts down. The rich don’t need government’s help to make themselves even richer — though, when it’s offered, they certainly welcome it — and the white working-class people see government programs as things that take money away from them to help people of color and other “undeserving” types. The Democrats, who in order to win elections at all need the votes of women and people of color to overcome the Republicans’ overwhelming advantage over white men (though in the 2016 election the Republicans won white women as well), can’t afford to shut down the government and thereby immiserate their key constituencies.
If the Republicans won’t stop Trump and the Democrats can’t, who’s left? At one point I was hoping that Trump would at least be reachable by his fellow 0.01-percenters, who would talk him out of some of his dumbest and potentially most destructive ideas by pointing out to him how much money they and he stood to lose if they were implemented. There is a certain degree of evidence that that’s going on — Trump has pulled back from at least some of his most extreme attacks on the NATO alliance and he’s endorsed the so-called “one-China policy” the mainland Chinese government insists on if we’re going to have a relationship with China at all. (Given that China is both the largest manufacturer of “U.S.” goods and the biggest holder of the U.S.’s national debt, the U.S. government cannot afford to alienate China without collapsing both its own and the world’s economies.) But for the most part the corporate ruling class of the U.S. has gone along with Trump — as shown by how much the stock market has gone up since his election despite quite a few predictions that it would go down.
Also don’t hold much false hope that the American judiciary is going to hold Trump accountable — even though that appears to be what happened when a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to lift Judge Jason Robart’s order blocking enforcement of Trump’s ban on refugees. The federal court system may be an island of independence from TrumpAmerica for now, but it won’t be much longer. After the Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate in the 2014 election, they refused to hold hearings or vote not only on President Obama’s appointee to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, they also blocked the filling of over 100 vacancies throughout the federal court system. Now Trump will get to appoint people to all those judgeships — and he’s already made clear what he wants in his judges. He wants them to “do what is right” — i.e., what the Boss tells them to do. Besides, as Andrew Jackson (reportedly one of Trump’s heroes) once said when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against him, “The Court has made its decision. Now let them enforce it.
The last group that could at least conceivably hold Donald Trump to account is the American people themselves. A lot of progressives have been hailing the extraordinary turnout at rallies and protests held against the Trump administration, notably the Women’s Marches on January 21 (the day after Trump’s inauguration) and the pickets at airports and elsewhere targeting the refugee ban. But street protests only work when they’re targeted at adversaries who have some degree of conscience, some sense of moral justice to which the protesters can appeal. Trump and the Republicans have none. To them — and to their supporters, who have been brainwashed by talk radio, Fox News and other Right-wing propaganda outlets for decades to believe that anyone who opposes them is part of some deep, dark conspiracy out to ruin America — the fact that people are protesting Trump is only proof that he’s right and he’s doing the things he promised, the things that will “drain the swamp” and restore the white working-class America of their dreams.
Besides, for the last half-century the American Left has basically willed itself into irrelevance by stubbornly clinging to values, policies and practice that assure it will never again come anywhere near hailing distance of power. Among these are the fanatic pursuit of “internal democracy” through consensus decision-making — which ensures that no Left organization can actually plan strategically or follow a long-term strategy — and an intellectual contempt for the non-college-educated that expresses itself in impenetrable jargon like the word of the moment in Left circles, “intersectionality” — a word I would like to see stricken from the language now and forever!
Whatever “intersectionality” meant when the term was coined — I must confess I looked it up on Wikipedia and couldn’t make heads or tails of it — in practice it has come to mean that the more oppressed communities you can claim to be a part of (female, person of color, Queer, Transgender, disabled), the more worthy you’re considered. It’s yet another way the U.S. Left gives the finger to anyone who isn’t poor, Black, Queer or female — and with the thinly veiled contempt for the white working class the Left expresses by using words like “intersectionality” and the fetishization of oppression that lays behind them, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the American white working class has embraced the Right en masse and found its chosen champion in Donald Trump.
The American Left — particularly that part of it that clings to the useless, counterproductive policy of attempting to organize alternative political parties — also keeps making a mistake that helped create one of the greatest historical disasters of all time. In the early 1930’s the German Communist Party took the line that their center-Left rivals, the Social Democrats, were the “real enemy” — and thereby they helped the real “real enemy,” Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, come to power and bring on World War II and the Holocaust. To my astonishment, I’m still getting messages from people in the Green Party taking a similar line that the Democrats are the “real enemy” and that there’s no difference between them and the Republicans — a message that encouraged Leftists to sit out the 2016 election (or to throw their votes away on the Green Party or other Left splinter parties, which under the U.S.’s election system means the same thing) and thereby helped the real “real enemy,” Donald Trump and the Republicans.
What’s more, within the Left there exists a so-called “black bloc” tendency which has hijacked some of the major anti-Trump protests and engaged in wanton, counterproductive violence against people and property. The “black blockers” have been an irritant to the various attempts at creating a mass Left protest movement since they emerged in Seattle at the anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations in 1999, and they serve Donald Trump in the same way that Marinus van der Lubbe, the crazy Dutch Communist who burned the German Reichstag on February 27, 1933, thereby giving Adolf Hitler the pretext he needed to suspend the German Constitution and push through the “Enabling Laws” under which he proclaimed his dictatorship.
The “black bloc” and the other protesters who kept Right-wing speaker, journalist and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at UC Berkeley on February 1 handed Donald Trump and the “alt-Right” movement a major propaganda victory. Instead of organizing a disciplined, peaceful vigil outside the hall as Yiannopoulos spoke, or — better yet — staging their own event in direct competition with his, the protest organizers allowed 150 “black blockers” to hijack the event and start a riot that led the campus police to cancel Yiannopoulos’s speech. Trump was therefore able to argue that he and his “alt-Right” allies were defending freedom of speech against a cabal of sinister Leftists too afraid of open dialogue to allow views contrary to their own to be expressed on campus.
Indeed, conservative author and speechwriter David Frum has argued in his Atlantic article “How to Build an Autocracy” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/how-to-build-an-autocracy/513872/) that protest against Trump only serves Trump’s aims — and the more violent and antisocial the anti-Trump protests are, the better they work for him. “Civil unrest will not be a problem for the Trump presidency. It will be a resource,” Frum wrote. “Trump will likely want not to repress it, but to publicize it — and the conservative entertainment-outrage complex will eagerly assist him. Immigration protesters marching with Mexican flags; Black Lives Matter demonstrators bearing antipolice slogans — these are the images of the opposition that Trump will wish his supporters to see. The more offensively the protesters behave, the more pleased Trump will be.”
If Trump can’t or won’t be stopped by Congressmembers (who are ideologically aligned with him and also afraid of him targeting them politically), the courts (in a couple of years Trump will be able to pack the federal judiciary and therefore will effectively own the courts), the nominal opposition party (already reduced to virtual irrelevance in the corridors of power), or a mass protest movement, what can? He could lose the loyalty of the people who voted him into office, but so far not only hasn’t that happened, but every move he’s made has cemented them even more tightly to him. Trump won the Presidency with 46 percent of the vote, and the latest polls put his approval rating at 45 percent — a statistical tie.
Trump’s open defiance of political norms, his total refusal even to look like he’s reaching across the aisle, and the carefully cultivated macho swagger with which he presents himself publicly all have cemented his coalition ever tighter to him. Unless significant numbers of Trump’s voters not only get disenchanted with him but can be persuaded to view the Democrats as a legitimate and preferable alternative, Trump will be able to stay in power indefinitely. It’s clear that not even age and the Constitutional limitation of the Presidency to two four-year terms by the 22nd Amendment will stop Trump in his quest for perpetual power. That’s why he’s made his children and son-in-law such integral parts of his administration; clearly he’s grooming them for the succession.
Donald Trump’s Presidency and the near-total power the Republican Party has over modern American politics is the culmination of a decades-long struggle by a far-Right tendency that emerged in the late 1930’s in opposition to the New Deal and U.S. involvement in World War II and has managed to sustain itself ever since. It’s had setbacks — the downfall of its first elected official with nationwide stature, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) in 1954 (McCarthy not only anticipated much of Trump’s rhetoric and his unashamed lying, there’s even a direct connection with them: attorney Roy Cohn, who as a young man was on McCarthy’s staff and decades later helped Trump break his family’s real-estate development business out of New York’s outer boroughs and into Manhattan); the landslide defeat of its first Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, in 1964; and the Presidential victories of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — but it has brilliantly recovered from them and kept its eyes on the prize.

Now the prize is within reach. Under Donald Trump the Republican Party is poised to achieve what Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s political strategist, called “full-spectrum dominance” of U.S. politics. Ironically given how basic Trump’s demonization of Mexico is to his politics, their model is Mexico in the last two-thirds of the 20th century, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) occasionally allowed other parties to win the odd election but kept the presidency, the federal power and virtually all the states under their tight control. Today’s Republicans want to convert the American political system from one in which multiple parties exist but only two parties matter to one in which multiple parties exist but only one party matters. And they want to use that power to repeal the entire 20th century and return America to the dark ages of the 1880’s, when corporate leaders had near-absolute power, workers had no rights, people of color were at best second-class citizens, women were the legal property of their husbands and Queers, when their existence was acknowledged at all, were considered the scum of the earth.