How Did This Happen Anyway?

Understanding how you got into a bad situation can be helpful. Michael Tomasky offers assistance in an article called “President Trump Is What Happens After Republicans Spend Decades Rebranding Knowledge as Elitism and Ignorance as Bliss”:

There’s no doubt that it’s a liberal reflex to sometimes make fun of conservatives for not knowing things. And yeah, some liberals do that in a superior and supercilious tone.

But what’s happened in this country over the last, oh, 40 years or so is that in our political discourse, it has become far, far worse to make fun of someone for not knowing some basic historical fact than it is to not know the fact. And that is absurd.

I’m sorry. By which I mean, I’m not remotely sorry: It is worse—plainly and unambiguously worse—to be ignorant of basic history than it is to know that history and be a little insufferable about knowing it. A civilization that has concluded that the latter is worse is a civilization that is valuing attitude and posture over fact, and that is precisely the corkscrewed value system gave us a cretin like Trump in the first place.

When the conservative counter-offensive really kicked in, back in the 1970s, conservatives who wanted to dramatically remake and reorder American society knew they had a big job in front of them. All kinds of presumptions about how life and society worked were lodged deep in people’s minds. Many—most, indeed perhaps nearly all—of those assumptions were kind of liberal. The Republicans caused the Depression. Roosevelt saved the country. Unions helped us prosper in the postwar era. Science was noble, and experts were to be venerated. Religion was to remain private. The generals got us into an unwinnable war in Vietnam. And so on.

These were all things that the broad majority of Americans believed. They were also, well, you know, true. Republicans did wreck the country in 1929, FDR did save it, experts had expertise that was of value. Conservatives had to get Americans to un-believe all that—to hate unions and mistrust experts, to agree that liberals lost the Vietnam War.

That effort involved two prongs. The first and more obvious was inventing their own set of “facts” whereby, say, Roosevelt prolonged the Depression. The second prong was the discrediting of those who continued to trumpet the old liberal version of reality, and the sharpest knife in that drawer was by far the charge of elitism.

Once Republicans figured that out, the discrediting got simple. All you had to do to puncture someone’s argument was call that person an elitist. It often didn’t matter whether that someone was factually correct. In fact, being factually correct was all the more damning! Knowing the difference, say, between the Lippmann and Dewey points of view was evidence itself that one was too dependent on exterior knowledge, had no internal instincts on which to operate and base decisions.

Well, 40 years later, here we are. We finally have a president of the United States who is all gut, no knowledge. There are consequences to this. Our allies don’t like us. We’re starting trade wars with them that are ahistorical and ungrounded in fact. Trump’s going to Canada today for a G-7 meeting he has no desire to attend and where not much of anyone wants to see him. On the apparently upcoming North Korea meeting, Trump said Thursday, “I don’t think I have to prepare very much”….

So laugh when Trump blurts out some historical whopper. God knows we all need to laugh. But remember too—the fact that a man that ignorant is our president is the culmination (I hope, anyway) of a long attack on truth set in motion four decades ago that persuaded millions of Americans that knowledge is slavery and ignorance is indeed bliss.

I’d change that last sentence to say millions of Americans think knowledge is unnecessary, expertise is suspect and ignorance is comfortable, but that’s a mere quibble in the current crisis.

The Most Ridiculous Ever

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post has performed a public service by collecting a remarkably reassuring series of YKW’s (You Know Who’s) self-evaluations.

Outgoing national security adviser H.R. McMaster … said this week that “we have failed to impose sufficient costs” on Russia — joining a consensus view that [YKW] has been inexplicably soft on Vladimir Putin’s assaults on democracy and stability. 

But we can all stand down.

“Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have,” [YKW] announced.

I felt similar relief when, even though he used anti-Semitic themes in his campaign and hesitated to condemn vandalism against Jewish targets, [he] informed us that “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”

I likewise was not troubled by [his] talk about “shithole” countries in Africa, or his defense of white supremacists in Charlottesville, because, as [he] assured us, “I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”

I don’t share the stock market’s jitters over the trade war [he] started, because I recall his assurance that “nobody knows more about trade than me.”

The allegations about his infidelity and his boasts about assaulting women are not troubling, because “nobody respects women more than I do,” and “nobody loves the Bible more than I do.”

The outrage about him mocking a disabled journalist on the campaign trail? Misplaced — because “nobody’s better to people with disabilities than me.”

You think he’s foul-mouthed and his insult-an-hour leadership is unpresidential? WRONG! “I have one of the great temperaments,” he said.

And on those occasions when [he] pits Americans against each other by race and ethnicity, fear not: “There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have.”

… In rare moments of self-doubt, [he] admits he may not be quite as great as the Great Emancipator, but, he said, “with the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.”

It’s a signature [YKW] move: Don’t just deny the charge but declare yourself to be the polar opposite (while accusing your opponents of whatever you were accused of: You’re the puppet!). He can’t be a racist, or soft on Russia, or anything bad — because he’s the furthest possible thing from that.

It’s all terribly reassuring.

[His] biggest-and-greatest talk defines him, of course, and ranks him at the pinnacle of all human endeavors. His “I.Q. is one of the highest.” He has “the best words.” He is a “stable genius.” He has “one of the great memories of all time.” He was “always the best athlete.” His building makes “the best taco bowls.” He knows more about the Islamic State than the generals, and nobody “in the history of the world” knows more about taxes….

Some might quibble, saying his claim to be “the most militaristic person ever” is unfair to Genghis Khan, or that his claim that “nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as [him]” forgets the people who built the Panama Canal. But to point this out would be to further the historic persecution of [YKW], victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” In fact, “no politician in history . . . has been treated worse or more unfairly.”

… I was concerned about the flood of international criticism of [YKW] — until [he] said that he received “red carpet like I think probably nobody has ever received” in Asia, and that his speech in Poland “was the greatest speech ever made on foreign soil by a president.”

I worried about his cowboy talk of raining fire and fury on fat Rocket Man and his puny nuclear button, but I’m comforted to know that “there’s nobody that understands the horror of nuclear better than me.”

The rash of ethical scandals among Cabinet members was troubling, until I remembered that [his] Cabinet has “by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever.”

[His] tweets seem to show he’s unaware of policy details, so I’m relieved to discover that he understands legislation better “than any president that’s ever been in office.”

And despite figures showing Congress has ground to a halt, I’m delighted to learn that “never has there been a president . . . who’s passed more legislation,” except for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In coming months, I expect … a new caravan of superlatives: Most faithful spouse in history. Least nepotistic person in America. Greatest gentleman in the world. Least susceptible to flattery. Most polite Twitter user. Least likely to watch cable news. And the humblest person — by far…. 

So far, but only so far, he’s left out the most fitting superlative of all. He’s the most ridiculous ever.

Sometimes It Still Feels Good To Be An American

As I’ve gotten older and learned more about our history, it doesn’t feel as good to be an American as it used to. But there are days like yesterday that remind me how good it used to feel and sometimes still does.

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Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post said it much better than I could:

By the hundreds of thousands, they came. They gave impassioned and articulate speeches. The shared their experiences in Chicago, South Los Angeles and Florida. They gave one TV interview after another, displaying remarkable poise and heart-breaking sincerity. Adults decades older watched with awe. These are teenagers. How did these kids learn to do  this? 

The sense of amazement among adults, including jaded members of the media, was palpable — both because supposedly sophisticated adults had not pulled off this kind of change in attitudes about guns in the decades they’d been trying and because the teenagers shredded the talking points, the lies, the cynicism and the indifference that we’ve become accustomed to in our politics.

If this was a movie, you’d think it was inauthentic. However, it may be our image of our fellow Americans and teenagers that has been wildly inaccurate and unfairly negative. Too many of us have bought into the notion that teenagers are passive, addicted to their phones and lacking civic awareness. Too many have been guilted into accepting that “real Americans” are the Trump voters, and that the rest of us are pretenders, pawns of “elites.” The crowd reminded us of the country’s enormous geographic, racial, gender and age diversity. (Plenty of teachers, parents and grandparents turned out.) And in the case of guns, these people are far more representative of the views of the country than the proverbial guy in the Rust Belt diner. 

Social media has its downsides, we have come to learn all too well. But we’ve forgotten amidst the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal and the daily torment of President Trump’s tweets that social media merely amplifies what is there already. It gives the Russians, the haters, the xenophobes a louder voice and the tools to disguise their true identities, but it can also amplify sincere, empathetic voices and knit together a community — an overused but underappreciated phenomenon — without which the students’ organization on a scale of this magnitude would have been impossible. It is all too convenient to blame social media; the actual problem is the small but significant segment of the population behind the nastiness, anger, aggression and refusal to grapple with reality. As is always the case, the solution to bad speech is more speech. If we had forgotten that, the students who have grown up never knowing a world without iPhones surely hadn’t. 

The decision to let only children and teenagers speak was key to the entire endeavor. No canned political speeches; no feigned emotion. The experience of the more than 180,000 students who have been  exposed to gun violence in schools over the past few decades was suddenly very real, very immediate.

Those on the event stage talked about their friends, their certainty in political change, their solidarity with other victims, and their fearlessness in the face of naysayers and cynics. They mocked and condemned the National Rifle Association and the politicians who take their money…. They sounded angry, sad and serious. They spoke about democracy and urged the crowd to vote; they inveighed against party politics….

And so we are left with the stark contrast — the sincerity of the students vs. the canned platitudes of the gun absolutists; the speed and vibrancy of a mass movement vs. the gridlock and sameness of our politics; the dogged determination of teenagers not yet world-weary vs. the sense of futility that pervades our politics. The outcome is not preordained. Yes, democracies are under assault. Xenophobes and nativists certainly have come out from under the rocks. The president has tried to make the abnormal commonplace and the unacceptable  inevitable. But if nothing else, the marchers reminded us we have a choice. We can be fatalistic and passive, or determined and active. If teenagers can take the capital by storm, surely the rest of us can do something more than complain and yell at the TV.

The young lady in the yellow sweatshirt gets the last word:

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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.

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.