They Really Are Different From the Rest of Us

If you’re like me, you often wonder whether right-wing media people and politicians believe the nonsense they pass on to the rest of us. For instance, did they really think Hillary Clinton’s email server was a horrendous, disqualifying breach of national security? Or that the FBI, one of the most conservative agencies in the federal government, plotted to elect her, despite all evidence to the contrary (like the fact that they helped elect her opponent)?

Granted, some “conservatives” are sufficiently stupid or ignorant to buy that kind of crap. But the people who run Fox News or the major right-wing websites are smarter and better-informed than the average right-wing boob who watches Hannity or listens to Limbaugh.

Brian Beutler, one of the best people writing about politics today, argues that the purveyors of right-wing nonsense really are different from the rest of us:

Outside of the specific American context, the word “liberal” describes … a philosophical approach to organizing society [that reflects] a common commitment to basic Enlightenment-era ideals like equality, democracy, and empiricism [i.e. evidence].

In recent years, political science tells us, the two American parties have polarized, and the polarization has been asymmetric. Republicans have become more conservative faster than Democrats have become more progressive.

It is increasingly clear that asymmetric polarization is the wrong metaphor for what has happened in American politics. To say the parties are asymmetrical is to imply that they’re fundamentally similar, but that one has become distorted in some way—that while Democrats and Republicans are still committed to basic Founding values, Republicans are rapidly adopting more extreme policy prescriptions. They’ve changed, but they can change back.

Whether or not that was ever true, it clearly no longer is. The parties aren’t two different animals of the same species. They have speciated [become different species].

Democratic politicians, liberal activists, and journalists have different purposes and respond to different incentives, but they are all liberal in that global sense. Two decades after Newt Gingrich redefined what it meant to be a Republican, it is clear that Republican politicians, conservative activists, and the right-wing media have become adherents to a fundamentally different political tradition.

Most conservatives are not aware of this anymore than liberal people walk through life meditating regularly on their historical connections to John Locke and John Dewey. But some conservatives are perfectly conscious that they’ve rejected the small-l liberal canon.

Paul Ryan is an Ayn Rand acolyte. In his political biography of Steve Bannon, Bloomberg writer Joshua Green details how Bannon became enthralled with the anti-modernist thinking of philosophers like René Guénon and Julius Evola, the latter of whom helped create the intellectual foundation of Italian fascism. Bannon is an admirer of the great propagandists of totalitarian Europe, including Leni Riefenstahl and Sergei Eisenstein, who used information instrumentally to mobilize (rather than inform) … Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. For years now, Bannon and his acolytes in right-wing media have made no secret of their desire to destroy mainstream journalism as a vocation in America. His understudy Matthew Boyle has boasted that his organization’s goal is nothing less than “the full destruction and elimination of the entire mainstream media,” through the “weaponization of information.”

Bannon has been banished from the Trump White House and driven from his chairmanship of Breitbart for saying mean things about the president to reporters, but his imprint on the modern conservative media is enormous and undeniable…. It is impossible to watch Fox News in prime time, or Devin Nunes at the helm of the House Intelligence Committee, or Rush Limbaugh bellowing at dittoheads, and not conclude that they have done the same, consciously or otherwise.

Mr. Beutler sees here a crucial lesson for the “mainstream” (i.e. reality-based) media:

The job of the mainstream media isn’t to cast judgment on people with different value systems, but journalists can’t do their jobs well if they aren’t aware that the value systems of mainstream journalism and American conservatism are different and in conflict. It should be perfectly possible to apply the neutral rules of modern journalism to both American political parties while accepting that Democrats (and journalists and scientists) descend from the Enlightenment tradition, while Republicans (and their allies in conservative media) descend from a different, illiberal tradition—and that this makes the parties behave in different ways.

It is why the right has felt comfortable spending the past weeks fabricating whole-cloth conspiracy theories about the FBI and setting about to cajole and intimidate impartial journalists into taking the theories seriously—or at least into offering liars big platforms to spread disinformation. Journalists have spent decades responding to this kind of manipulation with varying levels of appeasement, hoping to escape the curse of the “liberal” epithet. They should try instead to embrace their own particular kind of liberalism instead, and let their bad-faith critics scream into the void.

Advertisements

Breaking the Cycle

Brian Beutler of the Crooked site has an excellent article called “Boycotting Republicans Isn’t Enough”. This is most of it:

Republicans spent the full eight years of the Obama presidency making arguments they didn’t believe, claiming to be outraged about things that didn’t really outrage them, fabricating controversy out of things they knew to be uncontroversial. They spent four years pretending to believe an attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans was a historic scandal, eclipsed only by the revelation (which they also didn’t really care about) that Obama’s secretary of state used a private email account to do work. When they were rewarded for this plain-as-day bad faith with control of the entire federal government, they immediately forgot about Benghazi, ignored botched operations for which Trump bore responsibility, and continued to use private email and encrypted third-party communication applications with impunity.

It’s a matter of absolute certainty that if voters “boycott” Republicans in sufficient numbers to throw control of government to Democrats, Republicans will return to the same playbook. They will feign remorse over having lost their way, then demand credulity from the public when they insist they genuinely care about deficits, that the next Benghazi is a real scandal, that every downward tick of the stock market should be laid at the feet of the Democratic president. Alongside that, they will continue engaging in partisan attacks on any mediating institution—whether the Congressional Budget Office or the FBI—that confounds their political ambitions.

The Republican Party isn’t going to “right itself or implode” unless that kind of unprincipled behavior is rendered toxic. It should be considered disreputable outside of movement conservatism to work for Fox News or for the same [Republican National Committee] that propped up Trump, and then backed Roy Moore in Alabama. If you conduct yourself the way Devin Nunes has conducted himself as Trump’s agent atop the House Intelligence Committee, you shouldn’t just have to worry about losing your seat, but about your name being dirt.

I can dimly envision how that might happen, but hold almost no hope that it will.

The institution with the most direct power to shape post-Trump Republican politics will be the Democratic Party. Obama came to power having promised to transcend partisanship and amid multiple national crises. For these reasons and others he determinedly avoided the kind of retrospective inquiries that might have boxed Republicans into accounting for their Bush-era political sins; for how they contributed to corruption, the salesmanship of the Iraq war, the torture regime, the financial crisis and so on.

Republicans do things a bit differently. When Republicans gain power—even against the will of the voting public—they aim to crush their political enemies. Obama’s signature legislative initiative transferred billions and billions of dollars from blue states to Trump states to help the citizens of the latter afford health care. Months after it passed, Republicans captured governments in multiple swing states, where they set about dismantling public-sector unions, suppressing the Democratic vote, and gerrymandering congressional districts, to guarantee themselves enduring power, whether their constituents approved of their governance or not. In December, just a year after losing the national popular vote by a substantial margin, Republicans designed their signature legislative initiative to inflict maximal punishment on the Democratic voters of high-tax blue states.

Warfare between the parties has been asymmetric in large part because liberals generally reject these kind of nakedly antidemocratic power grabs. But Democrats could be more determined to win political fights than they are.

After Trump, Democrats could adopt a more aggressive approach than they have in the past, on the fool-me-twice principle. They could abolish the filibuster, expedite legislation to widen the franchise and reform campaign finance laws, right Mitch McConnell’s theft of a Supreme Court seat, and conduct oversight of the institutions of government Trump corrupted. They could set up a commission to examine, the role of propaganda in American media, and report out how and why, under Trump, the Republican Party entered a de facto partnership with hostile foreign intelligence to influence American politics.

I think they can and should do all of these things and more, so long as they can be done on majoritarian and representative bases.

But to truly marginalize the GOP’s political style would require a level of cooperation from many conservatives that doesn’t exist, and a level of buy-in from generally non-partisan institutions—the media, the bureaucracy, corporate America, and civil society—which have proven ill-equipped to defend themselves from Republican efforts to co-opt or discredit them.

Corporate America has giddily joined a banana republic-style public relations campaign to thank dear leader Trump for his corporate tax cuts, and portray them as a boon to workers. Mainstream journalists are so petrified of bad-faith accusations of liberal bias that many of them genuinely can’t grasp how hostile the American right is to the vocation of journalism, or how to report on bad-faith in the public square more generally….

Which is all to say, even if post-Trump Democrats refuse to turn the page, other powerful institutions and individuals will do so happily.

In a world where Sean Spicer remains respectably employable, corporate America loves regressive tax cuts, mainstream news outlets refuse to make pariahs of people who seek their destruction, and the cult of false equivalence remains the analytic foundation of political journalism, voters can “boycott” Republicans in historic numbers, only to watch Republicans return to power unreformed a few years later.

Another thing we could do is convince a progressive billionaire or two to buy Fox News and get it out of the right-wing propaganda business. To quote Mr. Beutler, however: “I can … envision how that might happen, but hold almost no hope that it will”. The best we might hope for is that Rupert Murdoch, age 86, drops dead and his heirs aren’t as satanic as he is.

Democrats and Republicans

Today, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, gave the longest speech in the history of the House, which goes back to 1789. After it was discovered that the House rules allow party leaders to speak as long as they want, Pelosi stood and spoke for a little over eight hours.

The longest speech in the history of the U.S. Senate lasted 24 hours. It was given in 1957 by a racist Southerner in opposition to that year’s Civil Rights Act. At the time, he was a Democrat (because most Southerners were), but he became a Republican after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights act (as most Southerners did). He remained a Republican for the next thirty-nine years.

That basically sums up our two political parties. A woman wants people illegally brought here as children to be protected against deportation and to have a chance to become American citizens. A man wanted to stop everyone from having equal rights, especially black people.

The President Speaks

It has been widely reported that the president privately told some members of Congress that the U.S. should limit immigration from countries he referred to as “shitholes”.

A few facts:

He really did say it. The only Democrat in the room reported what the president said and at least one Republican senator (Lindsey Graham) confirmed the story. Shortly after the meeting, White House staff defended the president’s statement, and even suggested that his “base” would approve of what he said.

It’s unlikely that we would have heard about this if there hadn’t been a Democrat in the room, which should make us wonder what other opinions the president is privately expressing.

What he said is consistent with other stupid, racist remarks he’s made (for example, all Haitians have AIDS and Nigerians mainly live in huts) and actions he’s taken as president (such as ending protections for immigrants and their children and trying to prohibit Muslims from traveling here).

The president’s defenders are trying to make this a story about mere “locker room” or “kitchen table” talk, just like they did when the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape was made public.

They’re also trying to make it a story about the quality of life in these countries (“The president was just being honest. Would you liberals be willing to live in Haiti or Somalia? Why do people want to leave those countries?”).

The fact that the president used vulgar language has resulted in this story getting more attention than it otherwise would have received.

But the most important part of this story isn’t that he swore at a meeting in the White House. It’s that he vehemently believes that people from some countries would make better Americans than people from other countries. That’s been a popular view in some quarters since the 19th century. But it should be anathema to anyone who understands what it means to be an American and what the promise of America has meant to struggling people around the world.

Our first president wrote this in a letter in 1788:

I had always hoped that this land might become a safe & agreeable Asylum to the virtuous & persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong…

Our current president is beneath contempt and needs to go.

Mapping the 2016 Election

As the president and his co-conspirators plumb even deeper depths of evil and stupidity, it’s worth reminding ourselves how a serious candidate for Worst Person in the World got his new job. A good way to start is to take a look at this new map from the xkcd site. Each little blue person represents roughly 250,000 people who voted for Clinton. Each little red person represents the same number who voted for the evil, stupid guy. (There are also a few little gray people who represent third-party voters.)

xkcd

As you can see, the blue voters are clustered on the coasts and around Chicago. The red voters are spread more evenly around the country. There are 263 blue people vs. 252 red people. That roughly corresponds to the fact that Clinton got 66 million votes while her opponent got 63 million.

Since the United States tries to follow its 228-year old Constitution, however, each state actually held its own separate presidential election. Unfortunately, the Terrible Person won more states (30 to 20 for Clinton), including many of the relatively empty states in the western part of the country. Since almost all of those separate elections were and continue to be “winner-take-all”, whoever won a given state received all of that state’s “electoral” votes, no matter how large or small their margin of victory was. 

Thus, Clinton got 55 electoral votes for winning California by a very large margin and the Worst Candidate got 46 electoral votes for winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by very small margins. (Which shows that if you want to become president, it’s better to win lots of states, even by very small margins, instead of winning fewer states, even by very large margins.)

So, after all the electoral votes from all the states were added up, the Very Stable Genius won a big victory in the “Electoral College” (304 electoral votes to 227) and an important new job, despite getting three million fewer votes nationwide.

If nothing else, next time you see a map like the one below, showing who won America’s 3,000 counties, keep in mind that it’s a poor way to represent an election, assuming the election is based on people voting, not cows or tumbleweeds.

990px-2016_Presidential_Election_by_County.svg

It’s Not “Dementia Don” Anymore. Now It’s “Very Stable Genius”.

This morning, a few minutes after the president watched his admirers at Fox News talk about his mental health, three messages appeared on the president’s personal Twitter account. Here they are, presented as one amazingly coherent (for him) paragraph:

Now that Russian collusion, after one year of intense study, has proven to be a total hoax on the American public, the Democrats and their lapdogs, the Fake News Mainstream Media, are taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence. Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

It’s very hard to believe that the president still has enough of his marbles to have written that all by himself. It’s false to the point of delusion, of course, but well-written. I would have said someone else definitely wrote it, except that the peculiar way “T.V.” is written is one of the president’s stylistic quirks. (“T.V.” written as an abbreviation appears 32 times in the searchable Trump Twitter Archive; the simple “TV” appears much more often.) Perhaps the president dictated his response to somebody familiar with his unique style, and that person polished his ravings for  public consumption.

If the president did write that paragraph this morning (which I doubt), the explanation could be that he’s more competent after he’s had some sleep. We know he tires easily. (That new Fire and Fury book says he often gets in bed by 6:30 p.m.) His dementia probably gets worse as the day wears on.

At any rate, the president’s poor mental health is receiving additional attention, which is a good thing. Vox has an interesting interview with Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine, who strongly recommends that the president receive (or be forced to receive, if necessary) an emergency psychiatric evaluation. Its purpose would be to determine whether he is a threat to public health. Dr. Lee says it isn’t a question of diagnosing him. It’s a matter of determining how dangerous he is:

Assessing dangerousness is making a judgment about the situation, not the person. The same person may not be dangerous in a different situation, for example. And it is his threat to public health, not his personal affairs, that is our concern….

[Once] you declare danger, you are calling first for containment and removal of weapons from the person and, second, for a full evaluation — which may then yield diagnoses. Until that happens, physicians and mental health professionals are expected to err on the side of safety and can be held legally liable if they fail to act. So we’re merely calling for an urgent evaluation so that we may have definitive answers.

In doing that, we are fulfilling a routine, public expectation of duty that comes with our profession — the only part that is unusual is that this is happening in the presidency….

Those who most require an evaluation are the least likely to submit to one. That is the reason why in all 50 states we have not only the legal authority, but often the legal obligation, to contain someone even against their will when it’s an emergency.

So in an emergency, neither consent nor confidentiality requirements hold. Safety comes first. What we do in the case of danger is we contain the person, we remove them from access to weapons [Note: including nuclear weapons in this case] and we do an urgent evaluation.

This is what we have been calling for with the president based on basic medical standards of care.

We shouldn’t expect the president to be given a formal evaluation any time soon, of course. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo seems to think it isn’t necessary anyway, although he doesn’t distinguish between being diagnosed and being evaluated as a threat. That’s because we (including Republican politicians) already know there’s a very serious problem:

We are now back on to the feverish debate about whether or not Donald Trump is mentally ill or suffering from the onset of dementia. The most important thing to know about this debate is that it simply doesn’t matter. If the entire psychiatric profession got together and examined Trump and pronounced him entirely free of any mental illness, his behavior wouldn’t be any less whacked or dangerous in a President….

In common sense, everyday rather than clinical language, Trump is clearly unstable, erratic, impulsive. In a word, he’s nuts and not well. As citizens, we are entirely able and entitled to make these determinations. They are ordinary English language descriptors that the psychiatric profession doesn’t control and shouldn’t want to control. The entire debate over whether Trump is “mentally ill” is simply a diversion, premised on the idea that we need either permission or dictation to say he is not able to safely or competently fulfill the job of President. We don’t. The observed behavior is really all that is necessary and all that matters.

So where does that leave us? As the pressure mounts, the president will likely become more unhinged and more dangerous. Unless he goes totally batshit crazy, it’s unlikely that his staff or Congressional Republicans will do anything about it. Even then, they might cover up his incapacity. That’s what happened when President Woodrow Wilson had a series of strokes in 1919. His wife and the president’s associates secretly ran the government in his place.

Sometimes quietly, the Trump administration continues its assault on working people, the poor, immigrants and the environment. Republicans in Congress and the Department of Justice are increasing their efforts to protect the president and his co-conspirators, even as the evidence against them mounts. Now they’re even going after the president’s opponents (yes, let’s investigate the Clinton Foundation and her emails again). Fox News keeps broadcasting state propaganda. Puerto Rico is still suffering. War, either in Eastern Europe, East Asia or the Middle East, is probably more likely than it was a year ago.

Fortunately, we made it through 2017 without too many crises, aside from the disastrous effects of climate change on the weather. The various investigations now underway may interfere with the Republican agenda. January’s new Congress might provide some oversight of the executive branch. If we make it through 2018 relatively safely, there may be better times ahead.

In that positive vein, here are some words from Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister who influenced Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, among many others. Parker believed that slavery would be abolished one day:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

This Passed for a Sermon Tonight

We decided to deliver our own Christmas Eve sermons this year. This was mine:

It was on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, that Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, where 3,512 soldiers who died in the battle were still in the process of being buried.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract….

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Not everyone agreed with Lincoln’s speech. In his book, Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills quotes an article from the Chicago Times published a few days after Lincoln spoke. The author of that article pointed out that the U.S. Constitution made no mention of equality and accepted the institution of slavery. Lincoln, therefore, was supposedly betraying the soldiers who fought to defend the Constitution as it was written and adopted. From that article:

It was to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.

Garry Wills, on the other hand, argues that Lincoln’s words were important because they gave new meaning to the Constitution, to the battle at Gettysburg and to the entire Civil War. Lincoln avoided “all local emphasis”. His speech “hovered far above the carnage”. He mentioned “no particulars” — “no names of men or sites or units, or even sides”. Lincoln didn’t even mention slavery.

Listening to Lincoln, it was as if the Southerners, against their will and without realizing it, were also engaged in the “unfinished work” of making sure government of, by and for the people would not “perish from the earth”.

In addition, Lincoln claimed that America had been founded on the proposition that all men, and perhaps all women, were created equal, despite the obvious fact that some people, including women, weren’t born with the same rights as the men who wrote the Constitution. And by expressing the hope that government of, by and for the people should not perish, he implied that such a government already existed.

Despite Lincoln’s exaggeration or imprecision, Wills concludes that the Gettysburg Address was a tremendous success. It “cleared the infected atmosphere of American history … tainted with official sins and inherited guilt”. Lincoln’s words changed the meaning of the Constitution in the minds of most Americans:

The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one … they brought with them. They walked off, from those … graves on the hillside, into a different America.

I n fact, how different was it? Did America become as different as Lincoln would have wanted it to be after the Civil War, or in the 20th century or the 21st? We all know that progress has been made, but it hasn’t been enough.

From The Atlantic last month:

One hundred thirty-nine years since Reconstruction, and half a century since the tail end of the civil-rights movement, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color and religious minorities, and stood by him as that pledge has been among the few to survive the first year of his presidency. Their support was enough to win the White House, and has solidified a return to a politics of white identity that has been one of the most destructive forces in American history. This all occurred before the eyes of a disbelieving press and political class, who plunged into fierce denial about how and why this had happened. That is the story of the 2016 election.

Maybe we will never cure humanity of tribalism, the tendency to favor people who look and sound like we do. Fear of strangers was probably built into us through thousands of years of evolution. But we have made progress. There is less slavery in the world. There is more equality, even with the economic inequality that’s increased since the 1980s. But we all have more work to do. Lincoln’s implied promise of a government of all the people, by all the people and for all the people has not been fulfilled. In recent years, we seem to have gone backward.

So it’s worthwhile at this time of the year, when “joy to the world” is proclaimed, “peace on earth” and “good will to men” are sung, and A Christmas Carol always ends with “God bless us, everyone”, to remember the words and the challenge delivered by a real president, 154 years ago, at the dedication of a new cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.