Sunday, July 30, 2017

Trump's Juggling Act


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

Maybe I used the wrong metaphor from vaudeville to describe the Presidency of Donald Trump. In a recent post I compared him to a sleight-of-hand stage magician, using cunning techniques to misdirect his audience so they see only what he wants them to see and not what he’s really doing. In the last week of July, though, he’s seemed more like a juggler, keeping multiple balls in the air until his audience grows dizzy trying to tell them apart. The week began with the impending Republican vote on repealing and maybe replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), colloquially and derisively known as “Obamacare.”
It also began with the Trump administration continuing to deal with controversies over its relations with Russia, particularly over a meeting held June 9, 2016 in Trump Tower between Donald Trump, Jr.; Trump Sr.’s son-in-law (and, I suspect, desired successor) Jared Kushner; Trump’s then-campaign manager Paul Manafort; a Russian woman attorney named Natalia Veselnitskaya, whom I instantly nicknamed “Miss V from Moscow” after a deservedly obscure 1942 “B” movie with that title; and a whole lot of other Russians, including one who’s a former Russian intelligence officer and another who used to run a money-laundering scam and whom the pre-Trump Justice Department was trying to put on trial.
Since then, the U.S. Senate has voted down three, count ’em, three attempts to repeal all or part of the ACA — a “repeal and replace” plan that would have thrown 22 million Americans off of health insurance; a repeal-only bill that would have thrown off 32 million; and a so-called “skinny” repeal that would only have thrown off 16 million — and Trump has sent out tweet after tweet reflecting his own indecision whether to “let Obamacare fail” or demand that the Senate Republicans try again. But there aren’t that many people talking anymore about either the Senate’s failure to repeal the ACA or the June 9, 2016 meeting between Trump’s family and Miss V from Moscow.
That’s because Trump has thrown so many other balls into his juggling act. He’s brought in Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, a fellow New York financier whose name and personal style both seem to have come from The Sopranos, who unleashed an expletive-filled tirade against just about everyone else on Trump’s staff, including chief of staff (and former Republican National Committee chair) Reince Priebus, whom The Mooch called “a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” and chief strategist Steve Bannon, of whom The Mooch said, “I’m not trying to suck my own cock. I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength of the President. I’m here to serve the country.” When he wasn’t talking like that about Trump’s other staff people, The Mooch was alternately threatening to fire and to “kill” (his word, not mine!) anyone on the staff caught leaking information to reporters.
The Mooch has already nailed Reince Priebus’s scalp to his wall, leaving Trump a Cabinet vacancy because he tabbed Homeland Security Secretary (and former Marine general) John Kelly as Priebus’ replacement. Trump may have another empty spot in his Cabinet soon because he’s continuing his jihad against Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Attorney General has been a perfect servant of Trump’s agenda of immigrant bashing, 1980’s-style “tough on crime” zaniness and voter suppression, but Sessions ran afoul of the Donald for the one thing he did right. He “recused” — that is, stepped down — from overseeing any investigation of possible Russian influence on the 2016 U.S. Presidential election because, as the first elected official to endorse Trump and a frequent surrogate for him on the campaign trail, he’d been an intimate and high-echelon part of Trump’s campaign.
Trump’s mad at him for that because that means Sessions isn’t available to protect Trump from being investigated at all. Instead Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein (whom Trump has denounced as a Democrat from Baltimore even though Rosenstein is a Republican from Bethesda) appointed a special counsel, Robert Mueller, of whom Trump seems to be saying, to paraphrase what English King Henry II said of his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, before someone in his entourage got the message and knocked Becket off, “Will no one rid me of this dastardly prosecutor?”
But those weren’t enough balls for Trump. He also issued a provocative and quite out-of-the-blue set of three Twitter messages announcing that he was going to ban Transgender people from serving in the U.S. military because “our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that Transgender [people] in the military would entail.” He didn’t bother actually issuing an executive order, a command directive or any of the other documents Presidents usually put out when they’re telling the military to do (or not do) something. He just tweeted and left the people he called “my Generals” (the capitalization is his, not mine) to figure out what he meant, including whether they could let Transgender people already serving stay in and just not admit new ones, or they were supposed to purge them all.
And as if that weren’t enough, Trump also made two all-out speeches that showed his skill at using other people’s crowds as his props. On July 24 he addressed the Boy Scouts of America’s Jamboree in West Virginia, an occasion other Presidents have deliberately kept nonpolitical. Not Trump: his speech was essentially a Trump’s Greatest Hits set, laced with criticisms of Hillary Clinton, Democrats, Republicans, Washington, D.C. (Trump said he’s thinking of changing his nickname for it from “swamp” to “cesspool” or “sewer”), the media and his other favorite targets. What’s more, the crowd of 45,000 Boy Scouts and his families basically turned into Trump’s call-and-response congregation, shouting approval and repeating his catch-phrases back to him. The clips I saw on TV reminded me of a Hitler Youth rally: the only element missing was Leni Riefenstahl to give the clips some visual distinction.
Trump went even further to an audience he thought would be at least as appreciative of him as the Boy Scouts: a group of uniformed law enforcement officers at Suffolk County, New York. “When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” Trump said, making fun of the way police officers put their hands on top of the heads of people they’re arresting so they don’t hit the tops of their heads against the car. “Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody — don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
The Suffolk County police quickly issued a statement to the effect that they were horrified by Trump’s suggestion and they were not about to do anything to give their officers the idea that they could go out of their way to hurt suspects just because the President of the United States seemed to have given them the green light to do so. “The Suffolk County Police Department has strict rules and procedures relating to the handling of prisoners, and violations of those rules and procedures are treated extremely seriously,” the department e-mailed to its officers and the media. “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate ‘rough[ing]’ up prisoners.”
Other police departments, including Los Angeles and New York — both of which have long reputations for abusive and arbitrary treatment of citizens, especially people of color — quickly followed suit. The people running these departments said they’d carefully worked out policies to minimize the injuries to suspects, and they expected their officers to follow them no matter what the President said. But the militaristic images of these speeches, as well as their violent, thug-like content, reinforced as much as anything else has how much Trump hates democracy and would much rather be a Führer or a Soviet Premier or a North Korean “Dear Leader” than a powerful but still constitutionally limited president of a democratic republic.

Health Care Lives — More or Less

The biggest surprise of the week — at least for me — was that the Affordable Care Act survived the onslaught of the U.S. Senate Republican majority, albeit by the skin of its dentures. For seven years the Republican Party has been promising to get rid of what Trump and other Republicans have variously called the “disaster,” “train wreck” and “abomination” of “Obamacare.” They rode public opposition to the law — especially the so-called “individual mandate” that forces people to buy health insurance or pay a tax penalty — to sweeping election victories in 2010 (when they took the House of Representatives away from the Democrats), 2014 (when they took the Senate) and 2016 (when they took the Presidency).
During the 2016 campaign Trump promised to “repeal and replace Obamacare” on “day one of his Presidency.” It didn’t happen, mainly because the Affordable Care Act is an actual law passed by Congress and therefore he couldn’t get rid of it merely by signing an executive order, the way he could get rid of the civil rights of immigrants and Muslims. In May the House of Representatives, after a false start two months earlier, passed the so-called “American Health Care Act,” or AHCA (which I thought should have had a verb on the front of its name to describe what it would really do, like “Destroy American Health Care Act” or “Eviscerate American Health Care Act”), which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated would take health coverage away from 23 million people.
The AHCA not only attacked the Affordable Care Act, it also drove a stake through the heart of Medicaid, which began in 1965 as a government program to help poor Americans have access to health care. It’s since ballooned to cover one out of every six Americans — in certain far-flung states like Alaska, it’s one out of four. Forty-nine percent of all U.S. mothers who give birth today have their health care provided by Medicaid. Most residents of nursing home have their costs paid, all or in part, by Medicaid so their families don’t have to worry about grandma and grandpa impoverishing them. Medicaid is a joint federal-state program, in which the states decide who should be allowed in and what benefits they’ll receive, and the feds pay a share of the states’ cost for whatever they decide to cover.
The AHCA would have changed all that. Instead, the federal contribution to each state would have been capped at what it is now, and allowed to grow only by the overall rate of inflation — not the rate of increase of health-care costs, which is several times larger. This would have forced state governments either to kick scads of people off Medicaid, drastically reduce the services the program offers, or both. A lot of state governors — Republicans as well as Democrats — blanched at something so gratuitously cruel. So did a handful of Republican Senators, notably Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — remember I just said one out of every four Alaskans receives Medicaid benefits?
The wild card in all of this turned out to be former Republican Presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-Arizona). McCain’s saga began when he went back home for what was supposed to be a routine operation to remove a blood clot from behind his left eye. Before he left Washington he put out a statement denouncing the closed-door process Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) had ordered in which a gang of 13 Republican Senators, all male and all white except Ted Cruz (R-Texas), wrote the Senate’s version of the bill, the “Better Care Reconciliation Act” (BCRA), in secret.
“The Congress must now return to regular order, hold hearings, receive input from members of both parties, and heed the recommendations of our nation’s governors so that we can produce a bill that finally provides Americans with access to quality and affordable health care,” McCain wrote before he left for his date with an Arizona surgeon under the Congressional health care plan, which covers virtually everything. Then he got the terrible news that that little blood clot was actually a sign of a particularly aggressive sort of brain cancer called glioblastoma.
McCain’s public career has been a Jekyll-and-Hyde alternation between hero and hypocrite: between his courageous 5 ½ years of resistance to North Viet Namese oppression and torture as a prisoner of war and his craven belief that his way to the White House in 2008 led to throwing the crazy base of his party some red meat by appointing Sarah Palin (then-Governor of Alaska and sworn political enemy of Lisa Murkowski and her father) as his running mate. He got out of his hospital bed, went to D.C., got a hero’s welcome in the Senate — and then provided the deciding vote to pass the Motion to Proceed on the BCRA, thereby ratifying Mitch McConnell’s secret process he had earlier denounced. Then McCain the hero made a speech on the Senate floor saying basically the same things he’d said in his written statement before he left — and McCain the hypocrite voted for the BCRA itself even though he’d previously denounced it as “a shell of a bill.”
But the saga of the two McCains wasn’t over yet. After President Trump — who during the campaign had said McCain wasn’t really a Viet Nam War hero because he’d been captured and “I like people who weren’t captured” — saluted McCain as “a brave man” for having voted for the Motion to Proceed and the BCRA (which lost because there were a few other Republican defectors), McCain switched sides again and voted against an outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Mitch McConnell and his crew, scrambling for alternatives, then came up with something bizarre and outrageous called the “skinny” repeal, which would have got rid of only three parts of the ACA: the individual mandate that everyone has to have health insurance, the employer mandate that every company above a certain size has to provide it, and the tax on medical devices that provides a small part of its funding.
An indication of how absurd this process got was exemplified when a number of Republican Senators, including Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), gave a press conference on the eve of the vote on the “skinny” bill and said they were voting for it even though they didn’t like it and didn’t want to see it become law. They called it “bad public policy” and a “fraud.” Why would they vote for it if they thought it was bad public policy and a fraud, and didn’t want to see it become law? Because the House had already passed their version of a bill to repeal and replace the ACA, and the Senate therefore had to pass something to get the issue before a joint House-Senate conference committee.
That’s how differences between House and Senate versions of a bill usually get resolved. Both houses appoint members to a conference committee, and that group meets behind closed doors to work out a compromise between the two versions. Then the conference compromise gets referred back to each house, and if it passes the House and Senate, it goes to the President either to be signed into law or to be vetoed. Only House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) wouldn’t guarantee that he’d actually call a conference. He refused to rule out his other option: to ask the House to vote on the Senate bill as is, thereby sending the Senate’s fraudulent, bad public policy to President Trump, who’d said he was waiting in the Oval Office with his pen to sign whatever Congress gave him.
It all ended on July 27, when McCain the hypocrite once again yielded his place on the U.S. Senate floor to McCain the hero. Having already joined six other Republican Senators — Collins, Murkowski, Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia), Dean Heller (R-Nevada), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) — in voting against the repeal-don’t-replace bill the day before, McCain kept his vote open on the “skinny repeal” until nearly the last minute, gave Vice-President Mike Pence (who was there in case his vote was needed to break a tie) a thumbs-up signal, and then spoke an almost inaudible “no.”
There was another hero on the Senate floor that night, who’s been much less discussed than McCain: Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawai’i). Like McCain, she’s suffering from an incredibly invasive and aggressive cancer, though in her kidneys instead of her brain. She was actually recovering from surgery on her kidneys to stop the cancer when the vote on the health-care bill came up. Unlike McCain, her vote wasn’t going to affect the outcome one way or the other — all 46 Senate Democrats, plus the two independents (Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont) who caucus with them, had already formed a solid phalanx of opposition against any Republican attempt to repeal the ACA, and without her the final vote against the “skinny repeal” would have been 51 to 48 instead of 51 to 49.
But that didn’t stop Senator Hirono from getting out of her hospital bed, heading to Washington and bearing personal witness against the evil the Republicans, in their Libertarian fervor to destroy not only the ACA and Medicaid but all social insurance programs, were trying to wreak on the American health-care system. On July 25, after the Senate passed the Motion to Proceed, Hirono said, “Any proposal Senate Republicans come up with will kick millions off of their health care and hurt the sickest, oldest, and poorest in our communities. If this is what the Republican Party wants to stand for, the American people will hold them accountable.”
The real heroes in the health-care debate are the tens of thousands of Americans, many of them with disabilities, who went to town-hall meetings held by Republican Senators and Congressmembers who dared to have them and crashed the offices of those who didn’t to tell them they literally might die if the ACA were repealed and the Medicaid funding cap enacted. They are people like Mazie Hirono, who told the Senate flat-out she didn’t see why anyone else with cancer shouldn’t have the same excellent access to treatment she has from being a member of Congress; and Jimmy Fallon, who said on his TV show he didn’t see why anyone with a son born with a horrendous birth defect should have to watch their baby suffer, and maybe die, for lack of access to medical care he can finance for his son because he’s a well-paid TV star.
And they are Republicans like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, John McCain and governors like John Kasich (R-Ohio) and Brian Sandoval (R-Nevada). I may disagree with them on plenty of issues, but at least I can acknowledge that there are some Republicans out there who haven’t totally drunk Ayn Rand’s Kool-Aid and abandoned the whole notion that one of government’s functions is to help those who can’t take care of themselves. Indeed, I said during the last Presidential campaign that the country would have been far better served if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee and John Kasich the Republican. Instead of Wall Street whore Hillary Clinton and lying egomaniac Donald Trump, we would have had a choice between two dedicated public servants who agree on what the problems facing America are, even though they disagree profoundly on how we should go about solving them.

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.