Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Goodbye, Affordable Care Act

GOP’s Senate Victory the First Step Towards Getting Rid of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security


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

On Tuesday, July 25, 2017 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States Senate voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA, so-called “Obamacare”) and repudiate once and for all the idea that the federal government either will or should guarantee all American citizens access to health care. Officially the vote was simply a so-called “Motion to Proceed” — the Senators giving themselves permission to consider various alternatives for getting rid of the ACA — but don’t let that fool you. It’s only a matter of time before the Senate passes a bill either to “repeal and replace” the ACA or to repeal it outright with no replacement, and the only real suspense will be just what, if anything, will replace the ACA when the Senate finally acts and the House of Representatives, which already passed their own “repeal and replace” bill last May, either adopts the Senate version or sets up the standard “conference” process by which the two houses of Congress reconcile differences in the bills they pass.
The only open question is just what the Republican caucus of the Senate can come up with which will satisfy both the so-called “moderates” and the hard-line Right-wingers who are driving this process and will be satisfied with nothing less than a full-blown ACA repeal that gets the federal government out of the health care business once and for all. That’s why the Senate leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) plans to have one vote after another on various schemes to repeal the ACA, some of them attached to a “replacement” and some attached to nothing at all, until he finally comes up with something that can get the votes of the necessary 50 Republican Senators. With the math so tight — there are 52 Republican Senators, 46 Democratic Senators and two independent Senators who caucus with the Democrats — McConnell can afford to lose only two votes in his caucus to keep the vote total at the 50-50 tie which will allow Vice-President Mike Pence to use his Constitutional power to break the tie and pass whatever it is McConnell wants.
Like the brain-eating ghouls in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and his other follow-up films (and Romero’s death in the middle of the Senate’s ACA deliberations seemed macabrely appropriate), the bills to “repeal and replace” — or just “repeal and not replace” — the ACA keep coming long after they’ve been pronounced dead. The House of Representatives got so stuck on their version, which they called the “American Health Care Act” (AHCA, which seems to require a verb in front of it, like “Destroy American Health Care Act” or “Eviscerate American Health Care Act,” to describe its contents accurately), House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled it from a vote in March. But it was back, even meaner and nastier than before, in May, when Ryan scheduled another vote and even Republican House members who had criticized the bill before as too harsh voted for the new, worse version anyway, and it passed.
The Senate’s own version, the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) — “reconciliation” not as in “working to bring people together and settle their differences,” but as in “budget reconciliation,” an arcane process that allows the Senate to pass something with a simple majority and not risk having it filibustered by the minority — first surfaced in June after a secret two-week process in which McConnell and 12 other hand-picked Senators — all Republican, all male, and all white except Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — drafted the bill in such lordly isolation from the rest of the Senate, let alone the rest of the country, that not even all the members of the “Gang of 13” knew for sure what was in it. When they finally released the BCRA draft June 22, just about everyone outside the Republican Senate caucus was horrified. Like the House bill, it replaced the direct subsidies that had helped people purchase individual health insurance policies under the ACA with tax credits that wouldn’t benefit the lowest-income people.
Like the House bill, it eliminated the federal guarantee for Medicaid, the 1965 health-care program for the poor. Instead of paying a share of whatever the states needed to cover everyone they decided should be eligible for Medicaid, the federal government would put a cap on its contribution and raise that only by the general rate of inflation — not the rate of increase in health-care costs, which is several times that. The Medicaid cuts, which both the House bill and the original draft of the BCRA used to fund enormous tax cuts for the richest Americans, are crucial to the bill not only because the ACA relied largely on expanding Medicaid coverage to increase Americans’ access to health insurance, but because Republicans have never liked the idea that the government should have any role in guaranteeing people’s access to health care. On the July 25 Hardball program on MS-NBC, host Chris Matthews point-blank asked former Republican Party chair Michael Steele if he thought the government should guarantee every American access to health coverage. Steele answered, quickly and bluntly, “No.”
There were other nasty wrinkles in the BCRA, including a total ban on government funding of Planned Parenthood and a policy that no health policy that covered abortion should get so much as one dime in assistance from the federal government. An amendment suggested by Ted Cruz, which the most hard-line Right-wing Republican Senators insisted on including in the bill before they would support it, would allow insurance companies to sell low-cost, high-deductible, highly restricted health insurance policies if they also offered ones that met the quality standards of the ACA. One of the principal arguments made by supporters of this amendment was that, since men don’t get pregnant, they shouldn’t have to pay for policies that offer maternity coverage — ignoring the obvious biological fact that every time a woman gets pregnant, a man has been involved in the process. That’s what you get when you draft your bill behind closed doors and include only men. It’s probably no accident that the two Republican Senators who had the courage to vote down the Motion to Proceed on July 25 were women: Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
When the BCRA draft finally saw the light of day, just about everyone was horrified. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a nonpartisan body that’s supposed to give Congressmembers and Senators objective advice about the outcomes of a potential policy, said that 22 million Americans who now have health coverage would lose it under the BCRA. (Their estimates for the House bill were 23 million and for a simple repeal of the ACA with no replacement were 32 million.) Health insurance companies, who were already jacking up premiums for individual policies under the ACA — one of the big pieces of evidence Republicans have used to argue the ACA is self-destructing and needs to be repealed and replaced — said that the Republican alternatives would be even worse: they’d get rid of the widely hated “individual mandate” that requires all Americans to buy health insurance and therefore screw up the “risk pool.” What they’re afraid of is that, without a mandate, people won’t buy insurance until they get sick and actually need it — and with fewer healthy people paying into the pool, they’ll be spending more money to cover more sick people and will have to raise everybody’s rates to make up for it.
When Congress left Washington, D.C. for the July 4 recess, those few Congressmembers and Senators who dared to go home and face their constituents in town meetings got an earful. Senators and Congressmembers who didn’t hold town halls found people, many of them in wheelchairs or otherwise visibly disabled, picketing and in some cases occupying their offices, saying if one of the Republican health bills passed the loss of Medicaid coverage would literally kill them. Republican governors who had chosen to take the ACA’s opportunity to expand their Medicaid rolls to covered their states’ uninsured, like John Kasich of Ohio and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, protested that the Republican health bills would break their states’ budgets because they’d either have to make up for the federal Medicaid funds they’d lose or, more likely, cut back the number of people eligible for Medicaid and/or the services offered them.
Nonetheless, Mitch McConnell is keeping the Republican drive to repeal the ACA alive in the Senate — and after the July 25 vote on the Motion to Proceed, it’s a virtual certainty that he will be able to get some sort of ACA repeal through the Senate and President Donald Trump, who’s said he’s just waiting at his desk at the Oval Office with a pen, will sign it into law. On that dark day, not only will the United States government immediately cut millions of people off of access to health care, some of whom will quite literally die without it, it will turn its back on the hope of many who supported the ACA as the first step towards bringing the United States in line with every other economically and industrially advanced nation in regarding health care as a right, to which all residents are entitled and all pay for collectively through taxes.
The Republican attitude towards health care is exactly the opposite. They regard health care like any other commodity, to which The Market should control access. If you can afford health care, the Republicans believe, you should have it. If you can’t, you should do without or beg for your care from family members, friends or churches. House Speaker Paul Ryan signaled his real intentions when the House passed the AHCA and he said, “This is not an end, it’s only the beginning.” What it’s a beginning for is the ultimate Republican goal to repeal all America’s social insurance programs: the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, Medicare and the big one, Social Security. To the ideologues currently in charge of the Republican party, it’s none of the government’s damned business to help people have access to health care or to keep from being poor (or impoverishing their families) in their old age.
Quite a lot of the commentary on the Republican health bills has essentially run along the lines of, “How can they do this?” How can they blithely vote for a bill that takes health coverage away from 22 or 23 or 32 million people? How can they literally step over people in wheelchairs on their way to their offices and vote for a bill that could kill their visitors? How can they negotiate people’s access to health care away in secret and vote on it in such unseemly haste? Why, this line of argument runs, are the Republicans so cruel? The answer, as I’ve explained in previous posts on this blog, is, in one word, Libertarianism.

Libertarianism and Leninism

Libertarianism, in short, is a political philosophy that holds that the individual is supreme and no person owes anything to anyone else. As its founder, novelist, essayist and lecturer Ayn Rand, summed it up, “I will not live my life for any other person, nor ask another person to live his life for mine.” What this translates to in politics is the belief that the government has no business taxing the rich to pay for services for the not-so-rich. To do that, Libertarians argue, is theft and enslavement. When Rand was asked the question a lot of people are asking about her ideological heirs in the Republican Party today — what do you do about the sick and disabled; if you’re not willing to have government help them, do you just let them die? — she replied, “Misfortune does not justify slave labor.” In other words, a government has no right to take tax money from the rich to keep not-rich people from dying: that just enslaves the rich to the not-rich.
Indeed, one of the key elements of Libertarianism — like its 19th-century predecessor, Social Darwinism — is the belief that rich people are actually intellectually and morally superior to non-rich people and represent a higher order of humanity, a step forward in human evolution. Libertarians generally divide society into the “makers,” the handful of intellectually brilliant, morally unassailable rich people at the top who are responsible for all human advancement and progress; and the “moochers” or “takers” who want what the rich have without being able or willing to work for it and get it themselves. Rand expressed much of her philosophy in novels like The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and one of her plot devices was to have her super-rich heroes lose their money due to the machinations of all those pesky moochers and takers — and then, through their intellectual brilliance and physical and moral prowess, get it all back again.
Much of what separates the American Right from the European Right stems from its wholesale embrace of the Libertarian ideology. When Donald Trump ran for President he deliberately confused a lot of people by sounding more like a European than an American Rightist. Europeans like Britain’s Nigel Farage, France’s Marine le Pen, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and Austria’s Jorg Haider didn’t question those countries’ social insurance systems and safety nets for the poor; rather, they justified their opposition to immigration largely on the basis that social services should be reserved for the “real” British, French, Dutch or Austrians, not for swarthy, dark-skinned people from other countries with different cultures, languages and religions.
When Trump ran for President he posed as a European-style conservative pledging to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He viciously baited immigrants but framed his arguments against them partly in cultural terms — they’re criminals, rapists, terrorists who want to take what we have and bring our system down instead of assimilating — but also on the ground that America was being “overrun” with immigrants who would overwhelm the social safety nets and thereby reduce the amount of aid available for “real” (i.e., white) Americans. But he’s actually governed as a hard-core Libertarian, and I suspect that’s because Libertarianism feeds the two things most important to Donald Trump: his fortune and his ego. Not only does Libertarianism generate social policies that will make Trump even richer than he is, it flatters him by telling him that he’s a better, more evolved human being because he is super-rich.
There’s another model for what the Republicans are doing these days, and it’s an odd one. It’s an authoritarian Russian leader whose first name is Vladimir and whose last name is five letters ending in “n.” No, not Vladimir Putin: Vladimir Lenin, the founder of Russian Communism who took over his country in 1917 and started a tyrannical regime it took 74 years to get rid of. It may seem inconceivable that modern-day U.S. Republicans would have any reason to like Lenin when they hate, loathe, despise and detest everything he stood for ideologically — but they admire him immensely as a strategist and a tactician. Lenin literally wrote the book on how a minority of a society can, through sheer determination, will and the ability to take advantage of crisis situations, maintain power indefinitely, stifle all dissent, and push through an unpopular program.
The book was called What Is To Be Done? Lenin published it in 1902, and it was a strategy for the takeover of Russia that relied on some basic rewrites of the theories of Karl Marx. Marx had believed that capitalism would inevitably collapse and be overthrown in a revolution led by the “proletariat” — the industrial working classes. One obvious question was how would the proletarians who made the revolution learn how to run the society and the economy once they won. Marx said it would essentially be through on-the-job training: the skills the proletarians would need to acquire to organize and win their revolution would enable them to run things once they won. Lenin disagreed: he said that on their own the workers would only get as far as organizing trade unions.
To go beyond that and actually contest for power, Lenin said, the workers would need a small core of intellectually educated and fanatically dedicated experts in Marxist theory to run the movement on the workers’ behalf. He called this group a “vanguard party” and said they should operate according to a principle he called “democratic centralism.” What that meant in practice is that the members of the vanguard party should settle their differences behind closed doors: once they made a decision and announced it publicly, every member of the vanguard party should fully stand by the decision as it was communicated to the proletarians who were their supposed constituency, as well as any remaining capitalists who were still resisting the revolution and anyone else who could conceivably oppose them. In other words, to the outside world the vanguard party must appear to be unanimous, even when they weren’t.
The obvious flaw in Lenin’s strategy was that there was no outside check on his “vanguard party,” no institutional arena through which people with different ideas of how to do things could challenge its authority. The “vanguard party” that seized power to set up a “dictatorship of the proletariat” could all too easily become a dictatorship over the proletariat. This flaw was noticed as early as 1904, 13 years before Lenin and his party actually seized power, by German socialist Rosa Luxemburg. She read What Is To Be Done? and wrote a scathing essay in reply, “Leninism or Marxism?,” in which she correctly predicted that any revolution that won power by Lenin’s tactics would degenerate into tyranny.
Lenin’s political writings and his success in implementing them and winning absolute power for himself and his party in Russia became a role model for many other would-be dictators — and not just fellow Leftists, either. By chance I recently read Leonard Schapiro’s history The Russian Revolutions of 1917 — the first one, in February/March, which overthrew the Czar and attempted to establish a democratic republic in his place; and the second, in October/November, in which Lenin and his party seized power, overthrew democracy and started a monopoly on political authority that lasted three-quarters of a century — and got a cold chill when he explained that the the secret police force Lenin founded, like many of his other authoritarian policies, “came into existence as response to the conditions that arise when a minority is determined to rule alone.”

The Republicans: A Minority Determined to Rule Alone

There can be little doubt that today’s U.S. Republican Party is “a minority determined to rule alone.” Though more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump to be President in 2016, and more people voted for Democrats than for Republicans to be in the House of Representatives in 2012, that didn’t matter because the Republicans have been so good at exploiting the anti-democratic features the Founding Fathers built into the U.S. Constitution. The framers of the Constitution were openly distrustful of democracy, and they set up a system in which members of the House would be the highest-ranking federal officials chosen by direct election — and even those “elections” would be restricted to white male landowners.
The framers not only created the Electoral College to keep voters from electing the President directly, they set up a Senate that represented each state equally, regardless of population, and said it would be state legislators, not voters, who elected Senators. That changed in 1913 with the passage of the 17th Amendment, but quite a few Tea Party members in the early 2010’s actually urged that be repealed and legislators, not voters, be given back the power to choose Senators. More recently, this demand has been taken up by the powerful and influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Given how totally Republicans have out-organized Democrats in taking control of state legislatures and governorships, according to John Nichols in The Nation, if implemented now this would produce a Senate with 64 Republicans and 36 Democrats instead of the current 52-48 split. (See Before the 17th Amendment U.S. Senate seats were openly bought and sold through campaign contributions to key legislators — Leland Stanford (R-California), the Donald Trump of the 19th century, purchased a Senate seat for which he was outrageously unqualified — and that’s why progressive activists at the time pushed for direct election.
Even if the 17th Amendment remains in force, the equal apportionment of Senators to each state regardless of population is fundamentally undemocratic. The framers probably thought it was a compromise they could live with because at the time the Constitution was ratified in 1789, the most populous state, Virginia, had nine times the number of people as the least populous, Rhode Island. Today the most populous state, California, has 250 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming. So not only was the Senate an undemocratic institution from the get-go, shifts in population and particularly the increasing urbanization of America has made it horrendously more undemocratic over time.
The Republicans’ political successes at the state level have been key to their ability to seize control of the entire federal government even though they remain a minority of the electorate. The Constitution gives state governments virtually total control over who may or may not vote. The great amendments that extended the franchise — the 15th, which (at least on paper) banned discrimination against people of color; the 19th, which extended the vote to women; the 24th, which abolished the poll tax; and the 26th, which lowered the age of voting eligibility to 18 and made it uniform nationwide — were all framed as specific limitations on the otherwise absolute authority of state legislatures and governors to determine who may or may not vote.
The Constitution also gives state legislators power to create the districts for House members as well as the state legislatures themselves. Republicans have used this power in recent years to do ever more precise gerrymandering to make sure that, no matter how many votes Democrats get, it will be virtually impossible for them ever to take back a House majority. And the control the Constitution gives state governments over who does and doesn’t have the right to vote is increasingly being used in Republican-dominated states to make it as easy as possible for people likely to vote Republican (older people, affluent people, white people) to vote — and as hard as possible for people not likely to vote Republican (younger people, poorer people, people of color) to vote.
During Barack Obama’s Presidency a lot of Democrats spoke confidently that their party would soon become an unassailable majority in American politics because of so-called “demographic changes” — a younger population with a lower total percentage of whites — that were supposedly going to make them the majority party over time. The Republicans responded, not (as some Republicans suggested they should) with a campaign to reach out to younger, less affluent and non-white voters, but through a concerted campaign to make sure the electorate stayed dominated by older, better off whites even as the overall population became poorer, younger and more ethnically diverse.
People who criticize President Trump’s so-called “Election Integrity Commission” as a creature of his paranoid belief that he would have won the popular vote against Hillary Clinton if it were not for the “millions of illegal votes” cast for her, as he’s claimed in his tweets, are missing the point completely. The Election Integrity Commission, chaired by Vice-President Mike Pence with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as vice-chair and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell as a member, is actually designed to implement nationwide strategies by which Pence, Kobach, Blackwell and other Republican governors and secretaries of state have turned their states “deep-red” Republican.
These include onerous photo ID requirements, setting up more polling places in affluent areas and keeping them open longer (while cutting back polls and closing them sooner in less well-off communities, including communities of color), eliminating early voter registration and so-called “motor voter” registration, restricting the ability of voters to seek help casting and turning in their ballots, and expanding both the number of crimes for which your right to vote can be taken away and the length of time a criminal conviction will cost you your right to vote. One particularly blatant example of the real purpose of voter ID laws was provided in Texas, whose law says that a student ID can’t be used as legitimate proof of identity at a polling place — but a permit to carry a concealed weapon can.
In addition, the Election Integrity Commission has engaged in outright voter intimidation through their sweeping demand for private personal information, including partial Social Security numbers, on every registered voter in America — which has led voters in Colorado, one of the states that isn’t resisting these demands, to ask that their names be taken off the roles. (See In other words, the Trump administration is sending Americans a message: you can have the right to vote or you can preserve the privacy of your personal information. You can’t do both.
Restrictions on people’s right to vote and shrewd exploitation of the Constitution’s anti-democratic features are just two elements in a multi-faceted strategy by the Republican Party to achieve what President George W. Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, called “full-spectrum dominance” of American politics. One of the most bizarre aspects of the strategy is that even the people the Democrats are able to elect are being frozen out of the decision-making process as much as possible. Recently, Congressmember Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) was interviewed on MS-NBC after Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before the House Judiciary Committee, of which Nadler is a member — but Sessions would only answer questions from Republicans on the committee, not Democrats.
Not only did Mitch McConnell convene an exclusively Republican committee to write the U.S. Senate’s proposal to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, President Trump himself expressed his contempt for the very idea that the other political party in the Senate should be allowed to have anything to do with it. When preliminary vote counts on the BCRA showed four Republican Senators against it, Trump said publicly that “48 to 4” sounded like a really big majority to him. And when the Motion to Proceed on health-care legislation passed July 25, Trump was even more blatant, saying that the margin of passage was “51 to whatever.” Given Trump’s famous statement about journalist Megyn Kelly that during her tough questioning of him on a 2015 Republican candidates’ debate that “she had blood coming out of her eyes, or her wherever,” if I were a Democratic Senator I’d have a pretty strong feeling that the President of the United States has just compared me to menstrual blood.
As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, Donald Trump does not want, and never has wanted, to be the powerful but still constitutionally limited president of a democratic republic. He wants to be a dictator. His response to the allegations that members of his campaign colluded with Russian officials to “fix” the 2016 election in his favor has been to denounce it as a “witch hunt,” fire the FBI director leading the investigation, threaten to fire the special counsel as well as his own Attorney General, and publicly muse over the possibility that he could simply use the Presidential pardon power to get himself and all his aides off the hook.
Trump’s dictatorial nature is shown in his far greater comfort level in international meetings around other dictators — particularly ones like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Poland’s Andrzej Duda, who took power in at least nominally republican countries and turned them into authoritarian states, as I’m convinced Trump wants to do to the U.S. — in international meetings than democratically elected leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel or Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull. It’s also shown in the extraordinarily expansive portfolio he’s assigned to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who got to issue his public denial of collusion with Russia from a podium with the White House logo on it, in front of the White House itself — a clear public message that Trump wants Kushner to succeed him as President when age and the 22nd Amendment term him out in 2025.
Trump’s entire life has been one in which, by sheer grit, determination and utter unscrupulousness, he has survived crises which would have brought down a lesser mortal. He did it in 1991, when his Atlantic City casinos went bankrupt and the banks who’d lent him the money to build them were about to foreclose on him — only he convinced them that the casinos would be more lucrative with his name on them than without it. He did it over and over again during his Presidential campaign, when he recovered from disasters (including his taped comments that virtually boasted about raping women and his open incitement of violence against protesters at his rallies, as well as his boorish, almost unhinged treatment of Hillary Clinton during the debates) that would have sunk the campaign of almost anyone else, and won a stunning upset from which his political opponents are still haplessly reeling.
And as Donald Trump marches America ever closer towards a personal dictatorship — and the Republicans in Congress continue to enable him — who’s going to stop him? Despite his much-vaunted reputation for “integrity” and his public statement that it was time for the Senate to return to “regular order” and create a health bill through open debate in the committee process, when push came to shove Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) got behind Trump’s agenda on July 25 and voted not only for the Motion to Proceed but also for the BCRA, the very bill created by the secret process he had denounced in his floor speech. Like a good little “democratic centralist” soldier in a Leninist “vanguard party,” McCain put party, not country, first and voted for a process and a bill he said he abhorred.
The Republicans in both the House and Senate are, with a few exceptions, deeply committed to a Libertarian ideology that wants to wipe out all social welfare programs and all civil-rights protections, as well as all restrictions on corporations’ ability to exploit workers, consumers and the environment. (Ayn Rand was bitterly anti-environmentalist; she literally believed the power of capitalist entrepreneurs was so great it could change the laws of nature, and her hatred of environmentalism got passed on to the current Republican Right and is yet one more difference between the American and European Right.) They will stick solidly behind Donald Trump as long as they think he can still be of use to them in pushing the end of America’s welfare state and the end of all restrictions on business; only if he loses enough credibility with the Republican base for them to think he’s not of use to them anymore, and President Mike Pence would be, will they abandon him and impeach him or force his resignation.
During the July 25 telecast of Chris Matthews’ Hardball on MS-NBC, Matthews asked one of his three-person panels to predict whether President Trump will be able to serve out his full term. All three members said he not only will, he’ll be re-elected and serve out a second full term as well. Indeed, it’s quite possible that the Trump regime will last a full quarter-century: President Donald Trump, 2017-2025; President Jared Kushner, 2025-2033; President Ivanka Trump, 2033-2041. And at the end of that time the U.S. will be a profoundly different country from what it is today, resembling the U.S. in the 1880’s (the real period Trump, like Ayn Rand, thinks was when America was “great” and to which he wants to return us so we can be “great again”): total dominance of the political system by the rich, second-class citizenship for working people and people of color, environmental devastation, women back in the kitchen, people of color back at the back of the bus, Queer people back in the closet and a Hunger Games-style economy in which the overwhelming majority of people starve (and with little or no access to health care) while a handful of aristocrats feast.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Trump’s Sleight-of-Hand Tweets


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

Stage magicians call it “sleight of hand.” According to Wikipedia, the term “refers to fine motor skills when used by performing artists in different art forms to entertain or manipulate. … It makes use of everyday items as props, such as cards, coins, rubber bands, paper, phones and even saltshakers.  A well-performed sleight looks like an ordinary, natural and completely innocent gesture, change in hand-position or body posture. In addition to manual dexterity, sleight of hand in close-up magic depends on the use of psychology, timing, misdirection, and natural choreography in accomplishing a magical effect.”
It’s become clear during the two years of Donald Trump’s political career — 19 months as a candidate and five months as President — that he’s perfected his own styles of sleight of hand, particularly involving Twitter. Every time his campaign or his political standing runs into trouble, especially when he’s trying to do something really unpopular like taking access to health care away from 22, 23 or 32 million people (depending on whether Congress adopts the Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act, the House of Representatives’ American Health Care Act, or nothing at all to replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, so-called “Obamacare”), he sends a bunch of nasty tweets about some totally irrelevant topic and gets the public in general and the news media in particular talking about it instead of the really important issues.
It happened at the end of June, when Trump sent a couple of tweets (he had to split the message in two because his invective was too long to fit in just one) attacking Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, co-hosts of a morning show on MS-NBC called Morning Joe. The combined messages read, “I heard poorly rated ‘Morning Joe’ speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!”
The tweets were vintage Trump, containing insulting nicknames for his targets (“Psycho Joe,” “Low-IQ Crazy Mika”), attacks on their popularity (just about any TV program Trump goes after is “low-rated,” just as every newspaper he attacks is “failing”), and manifestations of Trump’s weird (to say the least) attitudes towards women. A lot of commentators dragged out the mini-controversy from late 2015 when, asked a tough question by Megyn Kelly during a Republican debate about his history of insulting women, Trump responded with an attack on Kelly as a woman: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
The story got weirder in the next few days, as Scarborough and Brzezinski put off their planned vacation so they could do their show June 30 and respond to Trump both on MS-NBC and in an op-ed column in the “failing” Washington Post. They claimed that the previous summer the National Enquirer had planned to run a story announcing that they were an off-screen couple. Scarborough and Brzezinski were both divorced and had started dating each other, but they hadn’t publicly announced that. In their typical style, the Enquirer was planning to “expose” their affair in breathless terms that would hint that there was something at best untoward and at worst immoral about two single adults who worked together having a romantic relationship.
According to Scarborough and Brzezinski, “This year, top White House staff members warned that the National Enquirer was planning to publish a negative article about us unless we begged the president to have the story spiked. We ignored their desperate pleas.” That’s how they explained it in the Washington Post; on their show they were even more explicit, saying that various Trump aides had called them and implored them to make up with Trump, apologize for every criticism they’d made of him on Morning Joe and agree never to say anything bad about him again.
Of course, that’s not what Donald Trump said happened. He sent out — you guessed it — a third tweet, in which he said he’d just watched the “low rated @Morning_Joe for [the] first time in [a] long time.” Trump denounced Morning Joe as “FAKE NEWS” — his all-purpose denunciation of any media outlet that reports something he doesn’t like — and said Scarborough and Brzezinski had come to him to ask him to get the Enquirer piece about them suppressed. “I said no! Bad show,” Trump tweeted.
By starting a controversy over two amorously linked hosts on a morning talk show not that many people watch, Trump took attention away from the U.S. Senate’s failure to pass the health-care law aimed at “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act, as well as his own new suggestion that Congress simply junk the Affordable Care Act without replacing it — which would increase the number of people left without health insurance by another 9 to 10 million on top of the 22 to 23 million who will lose it under the bill the House passed and the one the Senate is considering.
Trump also took public attention away from the commission he formed to investigate so-called “voter fraud” but which is really, critics argue, an attempt to implement the Republican agenda of voter suppression nationwide. Chaired by Vice-President Mike Pence and vice-chaired by Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, who’s already pushed through his state one of the most aggressive voter-suppression efforts in the country, the commission is clearly part of a Republican campaign to stay in power forever by making sure groups likely to vote against them — poor people, young people, people of color — won’t be able to vote at all.
Astonishingly, the day the media were obsessed with Trump’s tweet war with a couple of talk-show hosts, the elections commission came up with a remarkable demand. It told all 50 secretaries of state in the U.S. to turn over vast quantities of personal information on all their registered voters, including names, addresses, party registration, which elections they’d voted in since 2006, military and criminal histories, and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. (This meant that Kansas Secretary of State Kobach cannot legally fulfill rhe request of Election Integrity Commission vice-chair Kobach because Kansas law forbids him from releasing data on Kansans’ Social Security numbers.)
When at least 19 secretaries of state said they would refuse to comply with this highly unusual and morally and legally questionable order, Trump fumed on Twitter. “Numerous states are refusing to give information to the very distinguished VOTER FRAUD PANEL,” he tweeted. “What are they trying to hide?” In other tweets, he claimed that MS-NBC had let show host Greta Van Susteren go because she refused to go along with the network’s “Trump Hate” agenda, and exulted that CNN had now been established as “Fake News and garbage journalism” since they’d had to retract a story about one specific Trump administration official meeting with Russians to discuss influencing the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.

Trump’s Travels Abroad

All of this occurred on the eve of what was probably the most consequential foreign trip of Trump’s still-young Presidency: his scheduled meeting with the other heads of state of the so-called “G-20,” the world’s 19 most economically developed nations plus the European Union, in Hamburg, Germany. So far the coverage of the meeting in Hamburg has been mostly about the anti-globalization protesters that have massed in the streets, as they usually do at such meetings (and have since the World Trade Organization ministerial conference that was disrupted in Seattle in 1999), but the big news about Trump’s visit was his meeting not only with Putin, but the day before with President Andrzej Duda of Poland.
Duda won the presidency of Poland in 2015, in an election that saw his political party, Law and Justice, sweep to power in Poland’s legislature as well. One of the first things they did was pass a law putting all publicly owned media outlets under the government’s direct control, so Duda’s government can literally fire editors if they don’t like what their media are reporting. Did President Trump say this was a bad thing? Did he say, as U.S. Presidents generally do when they visit authoritarian countries, that granting freedom of the press not only helps the media, but helps the government avoid mistakes and get an early warning of what the people are thinking?
Not on your life. Instead he once again took up the cudgels against so-called “fake news,” which Trump seems to define as “any news report that makes me look bad.” Trump told Duda that CNN has “been fake news for a long time. They’ve been covering me in a very dishonest way,” and he added that “NBC is equally as bad” as CNN, “despite the fact that I made them a fortune with The Apprentice, but they forgot that.” That night, Lawrence O’Donnell tore into Trump over that assertion, saying Trump seems to think that since his show made NBC money, they owe him and have a moral obligation to be nice to him from then on. O’Donnell sarcastically asked if Trump would think NBC also had an obligation to comedian Bill Cosby to go easy on him in their coverage of the rape allegations against him, especially since The Cosby Show made NBC a lot more money than The Apprentice ever did.
Once again, Trump laid bare the authoritarian, dictatorial nature of his idea of government and how a president should be allowed to act. He does not and has never wanted to be a powerful but still limited elected leader, responsible to two other equal branches of government set up by the Constitution he swore an oath of office to defend (and which he knows so little about he doesn’t even know how many articles it contains). Rather, he sees himself as a plebiscitary dictator, and he gets along best with other national leaders who took power in previously democratic countries and turned them into authoritarian states: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Poland’s Andrzej Duda, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
Trump’s visceral distaste for the whole idea of democracy has been in evidence ever since he started his Presidential campaign two years ago. His obvious comfort level not only with authoritarian presidents who run countries that used to be democracies until they elected them but with leaders like the king of Saudi Arabia, which isn’t a democracy and has never pretended to be, contrasts vividly with the way he treats leaders who got elected and take the whole notion of being “servants of the people” seriously. I’ve been fascinated by the pained expression Trump seems to assume every time he’s forced to be in the same room with Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, as if he’s thinking, “I already took down one blonde bitch who thought she was smarter than me. I’ll take down this one, too.”
This is also the secret behind Trump’s refusal to ackowledge publicly that the Russian government attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. After all, during the campaign he said he would accept the election result “if I win,” and after he did win in the Electoral College but still lost the popular vote, he made up the myth of “3 to 5 million illegal votes” cast against him, without which he would have won the popular vote as well. Trump sees himself in classic fascist terms as a “man of destiny” who emerged at precisely the time the nation was beset with such grave problems that only he could fix them, and thus he thinks that if Vladimir Putin’s government really did manipulate the election results in his favor, he did both Donald Trump and the U.S. (whose interests he regards as identical) a great service and he should be thanked for it, not excoriated. I suspect Trump also doesn’t want to alienate Putin over the election issue because he’s hoping Putin will do it again for him in 2018 and 2020.

Truth Is Irrelevant

Perhaps the most remarkable attribute of the Trump Presidency is how fiercely his supporters remain loyal to him even though on virtually every major issue except two — immigration and the environment — he’s done exactly the opposite of what he promised during the campaign. He ran as a sort of populist tribune, promising a fair shake for working-class America, and he’s governed as the child of privilege he is. Indeed, in his willingness to buy his way into public office and, once elected, use it to enrich himself, he’s exactly the sort of 1880’s ultra-rich politician the original Populists of the 1890’s were rebelling and organizing against.
Trump promised to “drain the swamp” of crony capitalists; in office, he let Citibank CEO Jamie Dimon write his policy towards the financial industry (and even paraded Dimon in front of his supporters and boasted about doing it!) and he became the fourth President in a row to appoint a Treasury Secretary who used to work at Goldman Sachs. He promised the American people he would replace the Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”) with something that would cover more Americans, charge them less in premiums and offer lower deductibles — and then he endorsed bills sponsored by Congressional Republicans that would cover fewer people and make the ones still covered pay more for less insurance.
Trump can engage in this sort of duplicity because he has never regarded “telling the truth” as a virtue. All politicians lie — hell, all people lie — but most liars do so from a consciousness that truth is morally superior to falsehood. Most people who lie construct their lies carefully, invoking as much truth as possible and deviating from it only to the extent they have to in order to achieve whatever they set out to do with their lie. Most people want to be seen as telling the truth, even when they’re not, if only because they believe the only way they can get people to believe them when they lie is if they carefully construct a reputation for not lying.
Donald Trump couldn’t care less about the veracity of whatever comes out of his mouth. To Trump, words are simply means of persuasion, weapons to get the suckers out there to buy his condos, visit his casinos, attend Trump University or vote for him. That’s why critics who say Trump is “violating his campaign promises” on health care by supporting the Republican health bills are, as usual, missing the point. Trump never had any intention of keeping his campaign promises. To him, they were just what he had to say to win enough votes to get elected. He couldn’t care less about the promises he made during the campaign or the people pathetic, naïve or just plain stupid enough to believe them. If they really believed what Trump promised them during the campaign — that they could have better health coverage than what the Affordable Care Act offered for a fraction of the cost — that only proved they were “losers” and he needn’t bother with them.
Indeed, one of the few topics on which Trump has been relatively honest is his contempt for his own voter base. During the campaign he famously boasted that he could shoot someone dead in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue in New York and it wouldn’t affect his poll ratings one way or the other. After the election, he bluntly told attendees at a campaign-style rally in Louisiana, “I don’t need your votes anymore. Maybe in four years I will.” And it’s become clear, not only in his appointment of a panel to investigate “voter fraud” but his selections of who to put on it — including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as its vice-chair and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (widely accused of rigging his state’s voter process in 2004 to make sure President George W. Bush carried the state and therefore got re-elected) as one of its members — indicate Trump’s clear endorsement of the long-term Republican strategy to ensure permanent dominance of American politics by preventing people who would vote against Republicans from being able to vote at all.
Trump’s response to the critics who say he is “not Presidential” — i.e., that he’s not behaving according to the norms lived by the 43 people who preceded him in the office — was to tweet that his style is “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” (The all-caps are his, not mine.) It’s an indication that Trump sees himself as a world-historical transition figure who has divorced himself from the way things have “always” been done. He wants not only Americans but everyone in the world to divide future history into B.T. and A.T. That’s one reason German Chancellor Angela Merkel can’t stand him: not only has he made his visceral distaste for her as both a political leader and a woman abundantly clear, but her country has been run by people like Trump before: Frederick the Great, Otto von Bismarck, both Kaisers Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler.
Indeed, one thing people often forget about Angela Merkel is she’s actually lived in a dictatorship. Though Merkel was actually born in Hamburg, site of the recent G-20 meeting at which she and Trump clashed publicly over climate change, in 1954, when she was just three months old, her family moved to the town of Brandenburg, which was then in the so-called “German Democratic Republic” — the official name of the Communist-controlled state of East Germany. She lived in East Germany until the two German states were reunited in 1990, and when she came of age she insisted on a Roman Catholic confirmation ceremony instead of the secular Jugendweihe (“youth consecration”) most East German young adults accepted.
As a student at the University of Leipzig Merkel successfully organized a private student recreation center even though the East German government generally forbade any sort of independent political or social activity. When Merkel graduated from college in 1978 after having studied chemistry, physics and engineering, she was offered a prestigious engineering job but was told that to get the job she would have to become an informant for the Stasi, the East German secret police. She refused.
A woman who emerged from the country that produced one of history’s most notorious totalitarian governments and herself stood up to another authoritarian regime is obviously not going to be afraid to take on Donald Trump. And a woman whose entire education was focused on hard science is not likely to be impressed by the ignorant prattlings of a real-estate developer who’s decided, based on the loony conspiratorial ramblings of far-Right Web sites, that the idea of human-caused climate change is a hoax cooked up by sinister Chinese who want to get America to de-industrialize. If Trump really thinks Angela Merkel is another Hillary Clinton, someone he can bully, manipulate or politically eliminate, he’s got another think coming.

Democrats’ Own Sleight-of-Hand

Alas, no one in Trump’s domestic opposition seems to have either the commitment, the perseverance or the political skill of Angela Merkel. Indeed, the Democrats have been largely committed to their own sleight of hand, attempting with bizarre ineptitude to portray Trump as a pawn of the Russian government in general and Vladimir Putin in particular. They have got exactly nowhere with this.
It seemed like a good idea when they started this effort in the later stages of the 2016 Presidential campaign. Word had started trickling out from the U.S. intelligence community, despite their much-vaunted reputation for keeping secrets, that there was serious evidence that Russia was trying to use dirty tricks to affect the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election. The indications were that Russia’s motives were twofold: to make Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, the next U.S. President and to cast doubt on the whole idea of representative democracy worldwide.
Then-President Barack Obama slapped a few sanctions on Russia, singling out 35 individual Russians for currency controls and confiscating two Russian diplomatic safe houses, one in New York and one in Maryland. He didn’t do more because he didn’t want to be seen as himself trying to manipulate the 2016 election in Clinton’s favor. At a meeting between Democratic and Republican Congressmembers, the Republicans made it clear that any attempt on the part of Obama or Congressional Democrats to make the alleged Russian hacking of the U.S. election a campaign issue would be met with a furious attack accusing the Democrats of turning Russia into a partisan football to salvage Clinton’s foundering campaign.
When the election was over and Trump was President-elect, the Democrats still sought to use Russia as a campaign issue. Their reasoning was that for generations — at least since the end of World War II, when the Soviet Union emerged as the U.S.’s leading rival for global influence and power; and to some extent since 1921, when the four-year Russian revolution and civil war left Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party in total control of the Russian empire — Americans in general, and Republicans in particular, had been conditioned to hate Russia and everything it stood for. Therefore, Democratic strategists figured, if there was any wedge point at which they could split Trump from Congressional Republicans, or Trump from his voter base, it would be over Russia and Trump’s obvious sympathies for the successor state to what President Reagan had famously called the “Evil Empire.”
Only it hasn’t worked. Whatever they may think of his personal style, Congressional Republicans still see Trump as the President who will help them push through their agenda and who will sign it into law. And Trump’s voter base remains as fanatically devoted to him as ever. Indeed, as NBC foreign bureau chief Richard Engel reported on the debut episode of his new MS-NBC show On Assignment July 7, what’s happened is a dramatic turnabout in the attitude of U.S. Republicans towards Russia.
Engel’s reporter, Kelly Cobiella, cited a poll that showed 49 percent of all American Republicans have a positive view of Russia. Cobiella went to Nashville, Tennessee to report that “Christian conservatives are falling in love with Russia — and with Vladimir Putin.” She interviewed successful attorney and Christian conservative G. Klein Preston IV, who called Putin “fantastic.” Cobiella said what attracts people like Preston to Putin is that they share similar Right-wing cultural values, including support for private gun ownership and opposition to abortion and Queer rights. “We’re very similar people,” Preston told her. “In fact, you could take many Russians and put them in a room with people who were from Nashville, Tennessee, and they kind of look the same.” Cobiella showed Preston’s huge collection of Russian dolls and knickknacks, and mentioned his business ties with prominent Russian allies of Putin.
The U.S. Right’s shift in attitudes towards Russia in general and Putin in particular actually began well before Trump. Indeed, one Left-wing writer reviewed the 2015 Conservative Action Political Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. and joked that they were going to endorse Putin for President … of the U.S. The writer was being facetious, of course, but much of the rhetoric at that year’s conference was praise for Putin as the anti-Obama, the masculine, butch leader who wasn’t afraid to use his country’s power to advance its interests, and who went out and shot bears instead of lounging around the White House wearing “mom jeans” (whatever they are).
Indeed, one could argue that what a lot of the Republican voters who made Trump first their party’s nominee and then President were hoping for was a kind of American Putin: a tough, no-nonsense leader who would put “America First” (the phrase Trump adopted for his ideology, seemingly unaware that it had originated to describe the 1930’s isolationists, many of them secret or not-so-secret supporters of fascist dictators like Mussolini and Hitler, who organized campaigns to keep the U.S. out of World War II and duped many liberal pacifists and progressives into joining them) and wouldn’t wimp out on “red lines” in foreign relations the way they felt Obama had.
It’s become highly discouraging to watch MS-NBC, supposedly the liberal voice in the U.S. corporate media counterpointing Fox News, and hear its ordinarily intelligent hosts — Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Hayes and others — belabor the Trump-Russia connection and go on and on and on about it as if it actually mattered. It doesn’t. Even the Right-wingers who haven’t totally drunk Putin’s Kool-Aid and moved from bitter enemies of Soviet Russia to staunch supporters of post-Soviet Russia couldn’t care less about Trump’s Russia connection.
To them, Trump is delivering the goods on immigration, ending economic and environmental regulation, wiping out the Affordable Care Act and promising “tax reform” that will, according to the Libertarian ideology that rules the Republican Party, be good because it will reward the “makers” at the top of the wealth and income distribution and punish the “moochers” and “takers” — i.e., everyone else. Indeed, much of the Republican voter base could describe itself thusly: “We are the 99 percent voting to make the 1 percent even richer, because they deserve it.”
The pathetic propagandists in the Democratic Party and on MS-NBC keep trying to compare the Trump-Russia scandals to the Watergate break-in and cover-up that brought down the Presidency of Richard Nixon. They needn’t bother. Watergate was far less complicated; when five people are caught breaking into the headquarters of one of America’s two major political parties, and one of the people arrested is the chief of security for the Presidential campaign of an incumbent from the other major party and he has a check in his pocket that came from a donor to the President’s campaign, it’s not hard for people to make the connection.
And even then, it took over two years between the arrest of the Watergate burglars and the end of the Nixon Presidency, largely because his supporters in the Republican Party remained blindly loyal to him for so long and couldn’t believe Nixon was personally involved in the cover-up of the connection between the Watergate burglary and the Nixon campaign. Only when the so-called “smoking gun” tape of June 23, 1972, which definitively proved that Nixon had ordered the CIA to say (falsely) to the FBI that they should abandon their investigation of the Watergate burglary because “national security” issues were involved, was finally released on order of the U.S. Supreme Court in July 1974 did Nixon’s political base finally realize that he was guilty of obstruction of justice and would have to go.
By contrast, no one really understands the Trump-Russia scandal. Though there’s virtually no room for doubt that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, there’s also no evidence that they actually affected the outcome. The spectacular ineptitude of the Russians’ attempt to sway the 2017 Presidential election in France to their preferred candidate, Marine Le Pen — who lost big-time — only reinforces a healthy skepticism that they did it to us any better than they did it to the French.
All we have from the Trump-Russia investigation so far is a bunch of shadowy “connections” — there is no actual evidence of collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russians, and when CNN reported that there was the story got exposed as false and they paid for it big-time in their loss of credibility — and a vague allegation that Trump and his people are showing a “consciousness of guilt” by trying to stonewall the investigation. Yes, Trump fired FBI director James Comey and he admitted to NBC reporter Lester Holt that part of his motivation was his irritation that Comey hadn’t quashed the Trump-Russia investigation — but in the same interview he called Comey a “showboat” and a “grandstander,” which suggested that the real reason Trump fired Comey was the threat to his personal ego. In a Donald Trump enterprise, there’s room for only one “showboat” and “grandstander,” and that’s Donald Trump.
So far, Trump has not even begun to face the consequences of his behavior, whether or not it rises to the level of illegality, the way Richard Nixon had to. For one thing, he’s had an impregnable defense: his party controls both houses of Congress, and therefore they’ve been reluctant to investigate him. The chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have both tried to turn the investigation of the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia into an investigation of the investigations of the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia.
They’ve largely followed the Trump playbook that the real scandal isn’t the alleged Trump-Russia connection but the news media’s publication of stories about it, often based on anonymous sources which Trump himself has alleged don’t really exist. In Trumpland, the reporters are simply making this stuff up and attributing it to nonexistent “sources.” Indeed, this is one of many instances in which Trump attributes his own misdeeds to others: at least one reporter during the Trump campaign said that years before, he’d received an anonymous phone call from a “source” bolstering Trump’s view of a real-estate deal the reporter was writing about — and it soon dawned on him he was talking to Donald Trump himself.
More recently, news media have alleged that they’re being shopped false stories about connections between particular Trump associates or campaign officials and Russians. On her July 6 program, Rachel Maddow exposed one such document which her crew had been offered, pointing out that the paper it was printed on had similar, though fainter, watermarks to the ones on the genuine National Security Agency (NSA) document on Russian attempts to hack U.S. voting equipment and software leaked a month earlier by NSA contractor Reality Leigh Winner. According to Maddow, the same tell-tale marks on the document, left by the printer Winner used to print it out, were on the fake document, indicating that whoever manufactured it had used Winner’s genuine leaked document as the template.
It’s unclear just where the fake document Maddow’s team got offered came from, but it certainly suggests that either Trump’s own team or some free-lance Right-wing media provocateurs are deliberately faking embarrassing Trump-Russia news stories which they can then expose as untrue and discourage the mainstream media from doing any more reporting on the issue. It suggests that the story CNN ran accusing Trump transition team member Anthony Scaramucci of having a secret meeting with Russian investment banker Kirill Dmitriev, which led to the resignations of three CNN staff members and a series of crowing tweets from Trump and his friends denouncing CNN as “fake news” and “fraud news,” may have been a similar setup, and CNN’s people, unlike Maddow’s, ran with it without taking the proper precautions to check it out first.
And President Trump isn’t the only Republican politician in the country who is using classic sleight-of-hand tactics to take on the media and discredit any attacks they may level against him in advance. The Portland [Maine] Press-Herald reported on July 6 ( that Maine’s controversial Republican governor Paul LePage had told a friendly talk-show host he frequently and deliberately feeds false stories to the media. “I just love to sit in my office and make up ways so they’ll write these stupid stories,” LePage told the host. “They are just so stupid it’s awful. I tell you, the sooner the print press goes away, the better society will be.”
On January 16, 1787, Thomas Jefferson, then serving as U.S. Ambassador to France, wrote his friend Edward Carrington, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”
That is an indication of how far we have descended in this country — from Thomas Jefferson, who called not only for the protection of a free press but a robust public education system to make sure that everyone would be capable of reading and understanding news — to Donald Trump, who has called America’s media “the enemy of the people”; Paul LePage, who can’t wait to see newspapers go the way of horse-drawn carriages; and Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, billionaire campaign donor and “Christian conservative” activist Betsy DeVos, who wants to eviscerate public schools and turn U.S. education into yet another commodity you only get if you can afford to pay for it.
Make no mistake about it: Donald Trump is a master manipulator. It’s not that he has never known failure, but he has always been able to snatch victory from the jaws of disaster. He did it in 1991, when he got his bankers to avoid foreclosing on his bankrupt Atlantic City casinos by convincing them the casinos would be more valuable with his name on them than without it. He did it again and again during the Presidential campaign, when he came back from disasters that would have sunk a lesser person.
And he’s done it as President, carefully cultivating an image of a “disorganized” and even “chaotic” Presidency while he quietly goes about achieving every item on his real agenda — not the pie-in-the-sky one he sold his working-class and senior citizen voters, but to make himself and his rich friends richer and ensure the short-term profits of the fossil fuel industry even if that means the long-term utter destruction of the world’s environment and ability to sustain human life.
The truth about Donald Trump is he’s a visionary who intends not only to fulfill his dark vision of his country’s — and the world’s — future, but to stay in power perpetually. It’s clear that he has no intention of letting the Trump family relinquish power when his age and the 22nd Amendment term him out of the Presidency in 2025. The extensive and wide-ranging portfolio he’s assigned to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is clear evidence he’s grooming Kushner for the succession — and his daughter Ivanka Trump Kushner to succeed him in 2033.

The perpetual power of the Republican Party in general and the Trump family in particular over American politics is not inevitable. But so far no one — not the Democratic Party, not the media, not the popular resistance that has assembled in the streets to challenge his insanely destructive policies — has figured out how to stop him. Ending the Trump regime and returning the U.S. to its former status as a bourgeois constitutional democracy is going to be an extraordinarily difficult process, requiring kinds of organizing no one in this country has yet conceived of, and the sooner we face that the better.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Trump’s Republican Revolution Continues Apace

GOP Wins Four of Four Congressional Special Elections Despite Speed-Bump on Health Care


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

“I will not live my life for any other person, nor ask another person to live his life for mine.”
— Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

“We just keep winning, winning, winning,” President Donald Trump boasted at a campaign-style rally shortly after Republican Congressional candidate Karen Handel decisively beat Democrat Jon Ossoff in a special election in Georgia — the fourth time in a row a Republican had kept a House of Representatives seat from flipping Democratic. The election occurred on the eve of another announcement in the history of the Republican Revolution: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s promise that his house’s version of the bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare,” would finally be revealed to the world after it had been drafted in secret by 13 Republican Senators — all of them male, and all white except Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Forget just about everything you’ve read about the “disarray” of the Trump Administration, the discontent of the so-called “moderates” in the Republican Party and the historically low “approval” ratings President Trump has reached in opinion polls. The Republican Revolution — essentially a back-to-the-future campaign to return the U.S. to what it was in the 1880’s, when corporations and their wealthy owners ruled everything and frequently purchased public office just to make themselves richer; workers didn’t have the right to organize into unions; workers’ health-and-safety laws didn’t exist and neither did environmental protections — is continuing despite the speed bump it hit in the Senate when McConnell’s health-care bill couldn’t attract enough Republican votes to pass.
The Republican Party has been determined to return the U.S. to the economic law of the jungle at least since the 1930’s, and arguably since the 1890’s, when pressure from the original Populists forced the government to confront, and occasionally even do something about, the excesses of unbridled capitalism: the increasing inequality of wealth and income, the treatment of workers and the environment as expendable commodities, the open purchasing of influence and power in the halls of government. It’s fascinating to me that American political commentators are so ill-informed about their nation’s history that President Trump continues to be described as a “populist” when he’s exactly the sort of politician the original Populists organized to oppose: a privileged rich person who bought public office to make himself richer.
It was during the 1930’s, with Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt and his Democratic Congress vastly expanding government’s presence in the economy, guaranteeing workers’ rights, creating Social Security to end poverty among senior citizens, and passing laws like the federal minimum wage and the Wagner Act, which gave workers a legally enforceable right to have unions and strike for better wages and conditions, that the Right-wing reaction went into overdrive. The arguments of the anti-Roosevelt, anti-New Deal and anti-progressive Right have a familiar ring today: government was getting too big, too involved in the inner workings of the economy; taxes were so high they were penalizing entrepreneurial success and handing money to people who didn’t deserve it; and only by returning to the order and discipline of the Free Market could economic recovery be achieved.
Among the propagandists for the Right who emerged in the late 1930’s was a woman writer and refugee from the Soviet Union named Ayn Rand. Her first novel, We the Living (1936), was an autobiographical story about her life in Soviet Russia and her deepening conviction that any economic system other than total lassiez-faire capitalism would produce the devastating privation and dictatorial authority she had seen first-hand in the Soviet Union. Along with the “Austrian School” economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek, Rand developed a political philosophy she called “Objectivism” but which is usually known today as Libertarianism.
The fundamental tenet of Libertarianism is that the individual is supreme, and people essentially owe nothing to each other. In Rand’s two most important works, the novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), she created stories in which heroic capitalists representing untrammeled individualism did battle with evil collectivists in government and wimps in the private sector who were willing to compromise with them. Contrary to the public image of Rand as a fierce defender of capitalists, there are as many capitalist villains in her books as there are capitalist heroes, and what separates the two are their attitudes towards government: Rand’s bad capitalists seek special favors from government, while her good capitalists either ignore government completely or treat it as just another customer.
Rand was so convinced of the superiority of her capitalist heroes over the common run of humanity that in her books she constructed plot lines in which her heroes lost all their money — and then, through a combination of hard work and brute strength and power, got it all back. She even believed the spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism was so powerful it could literally change the laws of physics; John Galt, the legendary figure around whom the plot of Atlas Shrugged is built even though he doesn’t appear until the very end of the book, invents a super-motor that runs on air. And she established a black-and-white Manichean view of society in which the handful of people at the top who build and run successful enterprises are the “makers,” and everyone else — workers, pensioners, the old, the disabled, as well as ordinary people who aren’t at the level of brilliance of her heroes — are “moochers” and “takers” out to shame, blackmail or force the “makers” to support their wimpy little undeserving carcasses.
One cannot understand the Republican Party of today without understanding the philosophy of Ayn Rand. When Paul Ryan, currently the Speaker of the House, was Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, it was revealed that every time Ryan hired a new member of his Congressional staff, he gave them a copy of Atlas Shrugged and told them to read it as an indication of what he wanted from them. Romney himself expressed the Libertarian credo more simply and comprehensively than Rand ever did on May 17, 2012, when in a private fundraiser for his fellow 0.01-percenters in Florida that was secretly recorded and released four months later, he said:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president [Obama] no matter what. All right, there 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. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. 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. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

GOP Health Plan: Libertarianism in Action

A lot of the commentary on the U.S. Senate’s proposed health care bill since it was released on June 22 has called the legislation “mean” and “cruel.” It’s focused on the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) projection that if it’s passed 22 million Americans who are now covered by health insurance won’t be. Many of the comments have noted that the bill goes far beyond a “repeal and replace” of the Affordable Care Act to attack the very basis of Medicaid, the government program passed in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society that offered health care for the poor and gave state governments basically whatever they needed to cover everyone they decided should qualify. Both the House and Senate Republican health care bills would eliminate this guarantee and instead cap federal funding at current levels, adjusted for overall inflation — which would dramatically diminish the money available for Medicaid coverage over time because health-care costs are going up several times faster than anything else.
Well, as computer geeks say, to the Libertarians who currently control the Republican party, those aren’t glitches: they’re features. The Republican health care bills gut Medicaid and slash health-care funding to finance huge tax cuts for the rich because that’s what Libertarians believe government should be doing. To a Libertarian, it’s none of government’s damned business to guarantee health coverage to all its citizens. In the Libertarian world, health care is just another commodity: if you can afford it, you should have it; if you can’t, you should do without or beg for help from families, friends or churches. Former Republican House member and Presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-Texas), father of current Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), angrily told off Democrats when, during the debate on the Affordable Care Act, he said that government had no business funding health care for people who couldn’t afford to pay for it. Told that people would die if his attitude became law, he came back by saying when he grew up that had been the law and no one had died for lack of health care. There’d always been a private source generous enough to cover the cost.
The Libertarians in charge of the current Republican Party see the attack on the Affordable Care Act as simply the first step in an overall challenge to the entire concept of social insurance in the U.S. They already persuaded Democratic President Bill Clinton to eviscerate the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program — the one usually colloquially known as “welfare” — in 1996, renaming it “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families” and insisting that recipients work for their benefits. Now they’re after the Big Three of the entitlement state — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — and they see getting rid of the Affordable Care Act as the first step towards bringing an end to social insurance in the U.S. forever.
They’re aware it’s going to take them a while to build up enough political capital to take down Social Security — especially since so much of the Republican base is concentrated among older Americans for whom Social Security is literally the difference between life and death — so they’re willing to do it in increments. Indeed, the biggest surprise about the Republican health care bills is that they were willing to leapfrog over step one of their anti-social insurance campaign, the low-hanging fruit of the Affordable Care Act, and go right into step two, the attack on Medicaid. The drafters of the current Senate bill have found themselves caught between conservative pragmatists like Ohio Governor John Kasich, who came out against the bill because his state took advantage of the Affordable Care Act’s opportunity to expand Medicaid and use the money, among other things, to address his state’s epidemic of opioid addiction, and hard-core Libertarians like Charles and David Koch, who’ve threatened to finance primary challengers against Republican Senators who vote for the bill because they don’t think it’s harsh enough.
Not that the Senate health bill is likely to stay dead. When the first version of the House legislation was abruptly pulled from an expected floor vote in March because there weren’t enough Republican Congressmembers on board to pass it, Democrats and progressives prematurely celebrated a victory. But in May the Republican leadership was able to grab the votes they needed from so-called “moderates” even though the second version of the bill was a harsher attack on the social insurance state than the first had been. Among other things, it allowed states to let private health insurers discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions — a particularly nasty bit of legerdemain America’s for-profit health insurance industry practiced for decades that essentially locked people out of the health-care system for life if they happened to have had an illness that was going to be too expensive for the for-profit insurers to finance treatment.
The Senate is likely to pass a health-care bill similar to the one Mitch McConnell abruptly pulled from the calendar on June 27. It will, as President Trump suggested, include a few more dollars to buy off this or that Senator from this or that state. Just as the House bill included a pathetically inadequate sum to help people with pre-existing conditions get coverage despite its abolition of the guarantee under the Affordable Care Act that insurers couldn’t discriminate against them, so the Senate will likely throw a few extra dollars at Senators whose states have higher-than-usual rates of opioid addiction and who are worried about the decimation of substance-abuse treatment that will otherwise happen as Medicaid, which funds quite a lot of it, is cut back.
But make no mistake: barring an absolute rebellion among their constituents back home and a willingness on the part of Senate Democrats to shut down the Senate completely until the bill is finally and definitively withdrawn, the Senate will pass some version of the anti-health care law, the House will approve it (likely simply adopting whatever the Senate passes so they don’t have to deal with the delay and additional uncertainty of appointing a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill), Trump will sign it into law and, as he has promised, the Affordable Care Act and its promise that someday Americans, like their counterparts in every other economically advanced country, would have universal health care will be dead.
Then the Republicans in Congress will be able to move to what they’ve loudly proclaimed is their next legislative priority, so-called “tax reform,” which in practice will mean another huge tax cut for the rich on top of the huge tax cut for the rich they’ll have just enacted as part of the bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. They will do this as part of the Libertarian ideology that the rich are the most deserving members of society and therefore deserve the lion’s share of wealth and income, and that any attempts to tax them to help the not-so-rich is not only bad public policy but downright immoral. They will also do this as part of another bit of ideological myth they’ve adopted: the idea that tax cuts for the rich will give rich people more money to invest in the economy and therefore will stimulate economic growth.
This myth has had many names: in the late 19th and early 20th century it was called “trickle-down economics.” In the 1980’s it was called “supply-side economics” and in the 21st century it’s usually been referred to as “unleashing the private sector.” The reason its advocates have to keep changing its name is that every time it’s tried, it doesn’t work. It was tried right after the Civil War and produced the “Panic” (19th-century speak for “depression”) of 1873. It was tried in the 1880’s and produced the “Panics” of 1893 and 1897. It was tried in the 1920’s and produced the Great Depression.
It was tried in the 1980’s, and the only reasons it didn’t completely tank the economy the way it had in the 1870’s, the 1880’s and the 1920’s were, first, President Ronald Reagan and Congress authorized such a massive increase in military spending it stimulated the economy and helped make up for the otherwise devastating effect of the tax cuts for the rich. Second, Reagan was enough of a Right-wing pragmatist (instead of a Right-wing ideologue) to pull back on the tax cuts and authorize a tax “reform” in 1986 that was precisely that: a scaling back of the earlier tax cuts for the rich and a genuine attempt to produce a fairer tax system for all. But in the 2000’s it was tried again, and this time it helped produce the economic meltdown of 2008.
To sum up, the Republicans are on an ideological mission to re-create the U.S. as a Libertarian utopia, which is what they thought they were doing back in the 1880’s before all those pesky populists, socialists, communists, progressives and liberals got in the way. In her books, Ayn Rand actually named the 1880’s as America’s golden age, and it’s become clear from the way President Trump has actually governed (as opposed to the meaningless promises he made on the campaign trail) that the 1880’s are the time during which he believes America was “great” and to which he promised to return us when he said he would “Make America Great Again.”
Though Trump didn’t run for President as a Libertarian, he’s been governing as one because Libertarianism feeds the two things most important to Donald Trump: his fortune and his ego. Libertarianism tells billionaires like Trump that not only does he deserves to be rich, his wealth marks him literally as a superior specimen of humanity who should be recognized as such by the rest of us. It also generates public policies that will make Trump and his fellow 0.0001-percenters richer. Indeed, while other people — including other sorts of conservatives — bemoan the increasing inequality of wealth and income, not only in the U.S. but the entire world, Libertarians regard economic inequality as a good thing because it means the “makers” are getting more of what they deserve and the “moochers” — the people Mitt Romney denounced as expecting the government to take care of them and being unwilling to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives” — get the pittances that are all they deserve.
And so far, despite all the chattering amongst the commentariat about how Trump’s administration is supposedly disorganized and constantly verging on chaos, Trump is quietly and methodically getting virtually everything he wants. With the aid of Mitch McConnell, he got Neil Gorsuch onto the Supreme Court. He’s reversed President Obama’s policies on the environment, regulation of the financial industry, preserving Internet neutrality and, of course, immigration. The U.S. Supreme Court just handed Trump a huge win on the controversial anti-Muslim travel ban, allowing the administration to enforce virtually all of it. And though the Trump agenda had a setback when McConnell had to pull the Senate health care bill from a floor vote it was certain to lose, no doubt the Senate version, like the House’s, will be back and will pass once enough Senators can be cajoled, bribed or scared into supporting it. Indeed, like the House’s health bill, the one the Senate finally passes will probably be even worse than the one they started with as Trump and McConnell “compromise” to get the most hard-line Right-wingers like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee on board.

Republicans’ Full-Spectrum Dominance

The two most dramatic phenomena of the Trump administration are the record of solid Right-wing accomplishments he’s racking up, despite the surface bluster that allows progressives, liberals and Democrats to keep underestimating him (let’s face it, if they’d been right about Trump he never would have won the election) and the near-total impotence of the opposition party to do anything to stop him. The high point of recent Democratic power came in the first two years of the Obama Presidency, when Obama came in with solid partisan majorities in both the House and Senate. Since then, every national election has been a disaster for the Democratic Party. They lost the House in 2010. They lost the Senate in 2014. Even before that, the Democrats had been losing state governments right and left — today 25 states are totally controlled (the governorship and both houses of the legislature) by Republicans versus only six by the Democrats (and, aside from California, all the states controlled by Democrats are small and relatively uninfluential).
The Republicans are on the verge of what President George W. Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, called “full-spectrum dominance of American politics.” Because they have been so successful in winning control of state governments, they have virtually unlimited power to rewrite the election rules. They can gerrymander House and state legislative districts with such computer-generated precision it will be virtually impossible for the Democrats ever to dislodge them. They can impose photo-ID requirements, make voter registration more difficult, disenfranchise more people altogether, eliminate early voting, place plenty of polling places in affluent areas and few in lower-income districts, and do all sorts of things to minimize voter turnout so the people less likely to vote Republican — poor people, young people, people of color — won’t be able to vote at all.
Not only has President Trump formed a national commission to investigate “voter fraud” (“voter fraud” is Republican-speak for “letting non-Republicans vote”), the people he chose as its chair and vice-chair are Vice-President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who not only launched an aggressive voter-suppression effort in his own state but was fined $1,000 for presenting misleading evidence in an election-related lawsuit. On June 28, a statement from the office of Vice-President Pence said “a letter will be sent today to the 50 states and District of Columbia on behalf of the Commission requesting publicly available data from state voter rolls and feedback on how to improve election integrity.”
As Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham explained (, the data being requested by the Commission will include “the name, address, date of birth, party affiliation, last four Social Security number digits and voting history back to 2006 of potentially every voter in the state.” What’s more, Kobach has said that all the data the Commission gets from this request will be released to the public — so there will be a publicly available database of every voter in the United States, including their personal identification information and their party affiliation. So much for America’s tradition of free elections and secret ballots — and all this is being set in motion by a President who famously said during his campaign that he would only accept the election results “if I win,” and who has since maintained that he would have won the popular vote for President if there hadn’t been 3 to 5 million fraudulent votes cast against him.
All of these machinations are designed to convert the U.S. political system from one in which any number of political parties can exist but only two really matter, into one in which multiple parties can exist but only one will matter: the Republican Party. Ironically, given how thoroughly Trump has built his political brand by bashing immigrants in general and Mexicans in particular, the model appears to be Mexico as it was governed during the last two-thirds of the 20th century, in which many parties existed but all the major elections were won by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which therefore had a decades-long monopoly on power.
And Trump and the Republicans are able to get away with this long-term because the Republican Party has built a fanatical political base over the last few decades, starting in 1968 (when Richard Nixon and Right-wing independent candidate George Wallace between them got 57 percent of the Presidential vote to 43 percent for Democrat Hubert Humphrey, signaling the end of the New Deal Democratic coalition and the rise of a Right-wing majority that has been the dominant force in U.S. politics ever since) and ending in the 1980’s, when Ronald Reagan’s victories put the seal on America’s Right-wing political realignment. The Right did it by mobilizing the white working class through appealing to their racist and cultural prejudices, and also by “flipping” the two major parties’ historical positions on civil rights — the Democrats, once the party of slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, became the party of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; while the Republicans switched from being the “party of Lincoln” to the party of white racism and reaction — so the once solidly Democratic South has become the solidly Republican South.
Things only got worse for the Democrats and the American Left in general after Reagan got in. One of the biggest things he did was get rid of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” that had previously put restrictions on the extent to which broadcast media could be partisan. The “Fairness Doctrine,” which existed from 1949 to 1987, said that broadcast outlets could only cover politics if they represented both sides of each issue equally. Once Reagan got rid of it, the AM radio band became the virtually exclusive property of the Right, which created nationwide networks of talk-radio hosts who broadcast virtually identical points of view and, despite some individual stylistic differences, read from pretty much the same media playbook. The rise of Right-wing talk radio in 1987 and the formation of Fox News, which brought the same relentless Right-wing propaganda to cable TV, in 1996 has meant that there is a permanent Right-wing media party of immense power to keep both Republican politicians and their voters in line behind an uncompromising ideology combining economic Libertarianism and social, moral and cultural conservatism.
Leftists who write about U.S. media generally analyze it in terms of the corporations who own it, and in particular how many media outlets are merging or being bought out so there are fewer diverse voices and most of the material on the air comes from a handful of giant corporations. This analysis is right as far as it goes, but it vastly underestimates the extent to which, just as American capitalists have two pro-corporate political parties (the hard-Right Republicans and the Democrats, who in European terms would be a center-Right party), they have also organized two pro-corporate media parties. The Right-wing media party of Fox News, talk radio and Web sites like Breitbart, Townhall, and Infowars constantly attack the credibility, legitimacy and even the right to exist of the less ideologically driven “mainstream” media like the broadcast TV networks, more moderate cable networks like CNN and MS-NBC, and newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post.
One of the most dramatic developments of the Trump administration has been the extent to which the President himself is a true believer in the Right-wing media party. Richard Nixon deliberately cut himself off from the mainstream media and relied on his staff to tell him what was going on in the world. Ronald Reagan handled the mainstream media the way he handled the opposition party in Congress, basically by charming them. The Bushes accepted the support of the Right-wing media party but they weren’t really of it the way Trump is. Trump not only appointed Steve Bannon, the head of Breitbart, as his chief strategist, many of his infamous tweets are based on information from the Right-wing media. He’s made it clear that the only media outlets he trusts are Right-wing ones like Fox and Breitbart; not only do Trump and his press spokespeople, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, constantly dis the mainstream media — the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN in particular — as “fake news,” they’re clearly making policy based on the Right-wing fantasies being broadcast on Fox News, talk radio and Breitbart.
At present, President Trump and the Congressional and state Republicans hold virtually all the political cards in the U.S. They own the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court. They have a cadre of multi-billionaire political donors willing to give scads of money to persuade people to vote for the most Right-wing candidates they can find. They have an immensely powerful media party giving Right-wing activists and voters their marching orders on a daily basis. And they have an organized political effort masterminded at the highest level of government to make sure people who wouldn’t vote for them will not be able to vote at all. While nothing in politics lasts forever, the Republican Party is poised to dominate American politics for a generation or more and fulfill their long-standing ambition to re-create the U.S. as a Libertarian utopia and eliminate all social programs and any other policies that might reverse the increasing inequality of wealth and income in the U.S.

The Democrats’ Catch-22

And ranged against the awesome power and influence of the Republicans is a rival major party that has been so beaten down by continued defeats and so staggered by their own overconfidence that they can barely even summon the energy to resist. Since Donald Trump’s election as President, there have basically been two centers of opposition. One has done its job superbly: starting with the women’s marches on January 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, and continuing through a series of marches based on human rights, science and immigrants’ rights — including the spontaneous protests at airports when the various iterations of Trump’s travel ban were announced — and the disruption of Republican Congressmembers’ town-hall meetings over the health-care bills, the direct-action resistance movement to Trump has turned out some of the largest and most spirited crowds in the history of American protest.
Alas, social change in a democratic republic does not come about exclusively through direct action, just as it does not come about exclusively through electoral politics. It takes both, and so far the Democratic Party — which, under America’s terrible system of single-member districts and winner-take-all elections, is the only vehicle by which anti-Trump, anti-Republican and anti-Libertarian candidates can actually win public office — has proven itself pathetically unable to amount an electoral resistance anywhere near comparable to the anti-Trump resistance being staged by progressives in the streets. So far there have been four special elections in which Democrats have tried to take seats in the House of Representatives after Republican incumbents vacated them to serve in Trump’s Cabinet — and the Republicans have won all four.
The Democrats’ spin machine has been working overtime, pointing out that these were districts in which the previous Republican members had won by 20 points or more (true) and they came a lot closer than previous Democratic challengers had — also true, but totally irrelevant under the rules of U.S. politics, in which you don’t get any prizes for finishing second. In American elections, a win is a win is a win, and whether you win by 20 points or by two points — or even, as Donald Trump did with the popular vote, you lose by two points but through the quirks of the system you win anyway — you have the same amount of power.
The Democrats have steadily been losing contested elections in the U.S. for at least a decade. It’s becoming more and more clear that Barack Obama’s two Presidential victories were flukes, the first one driven by the near-meltdown of the economy in September 2008 and the second more by voter inertia than anything else. As I’ve pointed out in these pages before, the so-called “Obama coalition” was able to elect only one person: Obama himself. The Republicans have pulled together a powerful voter base built around two of the groups that were once bulwarks of the Democratic Party — Southerners and white working-class voters in the Northeast and Midwest — and they’ve done it by embracing those voters’ racism and cultural prejudices.
After 2016 there was a lot of talk among Democrats about what they could do to win back the white working class that deserted them en masse to vote for Donald Trump. The depressing answer is very little. The white working class has slowly been pulled away from the Democratic Party; the people who in the 1980’s were the so-called “Reagan Democrats” in 2016 re-registered, cutting themselves off from their Democratic roots once and for all to make sure they could vote for Trump in Republican primaries — and now that they’ve taken the psychological step once and for all and “come out” as Republicans, it’s unlikely they’ll be coming back. Besides, the only way the Democrats could win them back is to embrace their racial and cultural prejudices — and that would piss off and drive away too many groups that are bulwarks of the current Democratic coalition: people of color, women (especially single college-educated women), Queers and what’s left of the 1960’s counterculture.
A lot of commentators are writing about the war between the conservative and progressive wings of the Democratic Party as if it’s something new. It isn’t. It’s been going on at least since 1896, in which — as in 2016 — the race for the Democratic nomination was between an establishment candidate and a progressive insurgent. The establishment candidate was the incumbent President, Grover Cleveland. The insurgent — the Bernie Sanders of 1896, as it were — was William Jennings Bryan, who because of his prosecution of John T. Scopes for teaching evolution in Tennessee in 1925 has gone down in history as a religious conservative, a prototype of today’s radical religious Right.
Nothing could be further from the truth: the real Bryan was an economic radical who regarded the idea that corporations were persons as literally blasphemous. (His argument was that if you believed the statement of the Declaration of Independence that humans were given “unalienable rights” by God, then those rights applied only to God-created persons — human beings — and not to person-created persons, corporations.) His call for the free and unlimited coinage of silver was, in modern terms, a demand to stimulate the economy and bring about full employment even at the risk of inflation. Even Bryan’s opposition to evolution was a twisted offshoot of his progressive economic ideas; faced with the Libertarians of his time, the so-called “Social Darwinists” who argued that the rich were a higher and more evolved race and therefore deserved the overwhelming share of the nation’s wealth and income they were grabbing by sheer power and willfulness, Bryan decided that the fault lay not only with Social Darwinism but Darwinism itself.
The conflict between conservatives and progressives in the Democratic Party flared up again in the 1920’s, another period of conservative Republican dominance, when conservative William Gibbs McAdoo and progressive Al Smith deadlocked for the 1924 nomination. The Democrats ended up nominating Wall Street attorney John W. Davis, who got creamed by Calvin Coolidge in the general election — and who last turned up in the public eye in 1954 when he argued against the civil rights of African-Americans in the Supreme Court hearings on Brown v. Board of Education. The Democrats split in 1948, when progressives upset by President Harry Truman’s embrace of the Cold War bolted and formed their own party, running Henry Wallace, the progressive Franklin Roosevelt had wanted to be his successor, as an independent candidate.
The Democrats split again in 1960 between progressive Hubert Humphrey and conservative Lyndon Johnson before they ended up nominating John F. Kennedy, who had so tiny a political record (he’d technically been a Senator from Massachusetts but his chronic illnesses had kept him away from the Capitol for most of his term) and was so calculatedly ambiguous in his public statements that both sides claimed him for their own. The Democrats split more infamously in 1968, when despite not having run in any primaries, Hubert Humphrey, now representing the conservative party establishment, grabbed the nomination after the death of Robert Kennedy and ended up with only 43 percent of the vote, a harbinger of the Republican realignment that would take place over the next four Presidential elections until Ronald Reagan solidified the Republican Presidential majority.
In 1972 the progressives actually got their candidate, George McGovern, nominated by the Democratic Party. What they didn’t realize was that not only was he the weakest possible candidate they could have put up against Richard Nixon’s re-election bid, but Nixon and his people were well aware of that — so much so that a key part of their elaborate attempt to rig the election, which became known as “Watergate,” was to make sure McGovern got the Democratic nomination by targeting his potential rivals with dirty tricks. Once McGovern went down to a landslide defeat, the Democratic establishment decided that from then on one-fourth of the Democratic convention delegates would be “superdelegates” appointed by party bosses. It was a change meant to make sure no progressive would ever win the Democratic nomination again, and it worked: from Ted Kennedy in 1980 and Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 through Gary Hart in 1984, Howard Dean in 2004 and Bernie Sanders in 2016, the route to the Democratic nomination is littered with the corpses of candidates who tried to take on the superdelegate system and lost.
The one progressive who actually made it through the gantlet of the Democrats’ undemocratic superdelegate process and won both the nomination and the election was Barack Obama — only he deeply disappointed the progressives whose hard work had helped win him the nomination by the way he governed. Harvard University political science professor Joseph Nye has drawn a distinction between “transformational” and “transactional” Presidents: between ones who took the office pretty much as they found it and tried to do things within the limits of the existing power sources, and ones who tried to break the rules and achieve sweeping changes. One reason for the bitterness in the 2016 Democratic Presidential race was that the party’s progressives were still upset over the way Obama had promised to be a transformational leader during his campaign, but once in office had governed as a transactional President.
Instead of grabbing hold of the economy and focusing his efforts on creating jobs, sparking an economic recovery that would have actually benefited working people, and punishing the people in the financial industry who had destroyed the economy — the way Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress had done after 1932 — Obama wasted his political capital pushing through a Rube Goldberg plan for health insurance that no one liked. Progressives didn’t like it because it not only preserved private, for-profit insurance companies as the bulwark of America’s health care system, it actually made it illegal not to purchase their product — the “individual mandate” that has remained the least popular part of the Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”). Right-wingers didn’t like it because it promised a major expansion of the social welfare state that they had targeted for elimination altogether.
Obama’s Presidency was marked by the Affordable Care Act becoming a rallying point for his opposition — particularly the “Tea Party” movement within the Republican Party and in the streets — as well as an economic “recovery” whose benefits went almost exclusively to the richest people in the country. Obama also pursued the disastrous “free trade” agenda that helped U.S. companies ship good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas and devastated entire communities. And, far from bringing Wall Street officials and the financial and banking officials who had wrecked the economy to justice, they were allowed to become even richer and more powerful. The banks that had already been declared “too big to fail” became even bigger, and the people — especially working-class whites — responded by deciding that the Democrats were no longer the party of working people. Instead they were the party of the people both above and below them, the snotty Internet billionaires who talked blithely about “disruptive” business models without giving a fig about the people whose lives they were going to disrupt, and spoiled people of color and other poor people who, in the view of most working-class whites, wanted what they had won with their sweat without being willing to work for it.
That is how Donald Trump won the Presidency in 2016: because the Democrats blew their last chance to show that they were truly the party of working people — the two short years, 2009 and 2010, when they controlled the Presidency and Congress, and instead of pursuing policies that would have put Americans back to work they pursued a health insurance reform that just made insurance companies richer and forced people to buy health insurance whether they wanted it or not. They’re not likely to get another chance. Oh, the Democrats may win the Presidency again, but it will be in what political scientists call “deviating” elections. The only three Democrats who’ve been elected President since 1968 — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — did it by attracting enough votes from the South to neutralize the Republican advantage in the region. Carter and Clinton did that by being white Southerners themselves and Obama did it by mobilizing so many voters of color, particularly fellow African-Americans, he was able to be competitive in at least some Southern states.
When the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton in 2016 they gave a gigantic finger to the white working-class voters that had once been a bulwark of their coalition. Clinton was about as establishment as they come: she had long since sold her soul to Wall Street for six-figure speaking fees. Working-class America largely hated her because it had been her husband who pushed through the loathsome North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the beginning of the cycle of so-called “trade” agreements that helped grease the skids on which employers slid jobs out of the U.S. and into low-wage foreign countries. Ironically, Trump in office has been every bit as much a part of the Wall Street establishment as Hillary Clinton — he’s at least the fourth President in a row who’s appointed a Treasury Secretary who used to work at Goldman Sachs; he openly introduced Jamie Dimon of Citibank as his advisor in gutting the rules governing the finance industry; and for all his talk about “draining the swamp,” he seems to have dumped the dregs into his government.
But Trump isn’t suffering politically from his fealty to Wall Street and his own class the way the Clintons and Obama have. Against all evidence, his supporters in the electorate still cling to their image of him as a sort of political White Knight, one who by his very boorishness and combativeness will somehow bring about the reckoning that will magically restore their industrial jobs and once again make the economy work for all Americans. One of the things the Democrats keep forgetting about Donald Trump is that his much-vaunted “approval rating,” which has hung around the low 30’s and high 40’s since he’s been in office, is meaningless because a lot of voters who may not “approve” of Trump will nonetheless vote for him.
While Democrats tend to judge candidates on the basis of their personal qualities as people, Republicans keep their “eye on the prize” and judge them by their ideology and what they will do in office. It’s unlikely very many evangelical Christians “approved” of Donald Trump the human being, but they voted for him overwhelmingly because they wanted to make sure the next President would be a Republican who would appoint Right-wingers to the U.S. Supreme Court — and in Neil Gorsuch, Trump fulfilled that promise.
The Democrats lost four out of four special Congressional elections in early 2017 because, while there are a lot of voters in heavily Republican districts who don’t fully trust Donald Trump, they haven’t been sold on the Democrats as a viable alternative either. The Democrats are in a bizarre Catch-22: they can’t win elections until they can convince voters (especially voters who don’t live on the East or West Coasts) that they can be trusted to govern, and they won’t get the chance to convince voters they can be trusted to govern until they can start winning elections.
The Republican/Libertarian revolution may collapse of its own weight, especially if Trump and the Republicans in Congress push it too far. Ironically, they’ve duplicated the mistake Obama and the Democrats made in 2009 — instead of big jobs and infrastructure programs, they’re spending their political capital pushing an unpopular health-care plan. But it will take a much smarter, less naïve and more organized political party than today’s Democrats to take advantage of the opening that will emerge if the Republicans do overreach.