In Reaction to the Reactionary-in-Chief’s Latest Offense

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has only had seven Directors (as opposed to acting Directors) in its 82-year history. From what I can gather, none of the seven have been Democrats or liberals. Even Democratic Presidents have selected conservative Republicans for the job. There have only been three Democratic Presidents who had the chance to select an FBI Director and Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were all known for their “bipartisan” tendencies. No doubt the three of them also wanted to appear “tough on crime”.

So it’s unlikely that our Republican President will nominate a Democrat to lead the law enforcement agency that’s looking into his Russian connection. But he could pick a respected Democrat. It would make the President look less like the criminal that he is.

I can’t think of anything else to say about this crisis that’s not already being said. For instance:

John Cassidy, The New Yorker:

Ever since [DT] took office, many people have worried about his commitment to democratic norms, the Constitution, and the rule of law. From the hasty promulgation of his anti-Muslim travel ban onward, he has done little to salve these concerns. Now he has acted like one of the authoritarian leaders he so admires—a Putin, an Erdoğan, or an El-Sisi.

Congress must restrain him and reassert the principles of American democracy by appointing an independent special prosecutor to take over the Russia investigation. If the legislature won’t act unprompted—and the initial signs are that most of the G.O.P. intends to yield to the President’s abuse of his power—it will be incumbent on the American people to register their protests forcefully, and to put pressure on their elected officials. [DT] is a menace. He must be stopped.

David Cole, The New York Review of Books:

Current investigations in both the House and the Senate are controlled by Republicans, and as House Intelligence chair Devin Nunes has shown, party loyalty can all too easily compromise a meaningful inquiry. In early April, Nunes was forced to step down from his committee’s investigation… That’s why Comey was such a threat to [DT]. He was the only official independent of the administration and its party reviewing the campaign’s ties to Russia….

The vitality of the rule of law in the United States will depend on whether the American people are willing to hold the Trump administration accountable. As Archibald Cox said, shortly after Richard Nixon fired him as Watergate special prosecutor: “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.” We remain a democracy, at least for the time being, and if we the people insist on an independent investigation, we will get one. But only if we insist—including by demanding that our elected representatives take full responsibility for addressing this crisis with every power at their disposal. As Ben Franklin reportedly warned some 240 years ago, the Framers gave us “a republic, if you can keep it.” [DT]’s latest action puts that question once again to the test.

So far, Congressional Republicans are either supporting the President’s obstruction of justice or expressing “concerns”. (If he were to murder a nun in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, the most thoughtful Republicans might be moved to express “deep concerns”.)

It’s not clear, therefore, that putting pressure on Republicans will make much of a difference. If you want to see what members of Congress are saying, however, The New York Times is keeping track.

As of 3:40 p.m. today

138 Democrats (or independents) have called for a special prosecutor 

84 Democrats (etc.) and 5 Republicans have called for an independent investigation.

41 Republicans and 9 Democrats have questions or concerns (the Democrats have deep concerns)

96 Republicans are neutral or support the President’s action

146 Republicans and 12 comatose Democrats haven’t said a thing 

Zero members of Congress have called for the President’s immediate impeachment (I added this category myself. It doesn’t hurt to mention it.)

He Doesn’t Have a Clue. Neither Do They.

This piece by Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine very nicely explains some of the Orange Menace’s appeal. He is the apotheosis of the Low Information Voter, the citizens who are conscientious enough to register and cast a ballot, but who have trouble deciding who to vote for, not so much because they’re “centrists” with “moderate” views, but because they don’t have a fucking clue:

It is widely known that [DT] — whose political profile over the decades has vacillated from liberal to conservative to moderate to populist, and supported and opposed abortion rights, higher taxes on the rich, and universal health care — does not care very much about political ideas. This explanation is true, but incomplete. The president also does not know very much about political ideas. And it is not merely the details of policy that he lacks. Trump has no context for processing ideas. He does not understand which kinds of ideas imply support for which kinds of policies, nor why political figures tend to believe what they do, nor why they agree or disagree with one another. He is capable of forming strongly held beliefs about people in politics, but he does so in entirely personal terms. Trump’s flamboyant, weird ignorance reveals a distinct pattern. He is not so much non-ideological as sub-ideological.

It is common to attribute Trump’s protean identity as simple self-interest: He has aligned himself with whichever party seemed to benefit him at any given moment. And surely calculation plays a role. But it cannot explain all his puzzling statements about politics. Sometimes he expresses openness about unpopular policies his administration and party would never go for (like a higher tax on gasoline). Trump constantly relates questions about politics back to himself and his alleged deal-making genius not only because he’s a narcissist, but because the contest of political debate remains largely mysterious to him.

Many Americans share Trump’s lack of ideological sophistication. High-information voters tend to clump at the ends of the political spectrum. They may not have sophisticated beliefs, but their identification with one of the party coalitions is a tool they use to make sense of individual issues. Low-information voters tend to have a weak understanding of what the political parties stand for and how those positions relate to each other. These voters can be roughly categorized as “centrist” because they don’t line up neatly with one party platform or the other. But, rather than a consistently moderate outlook, they share a mishmash of extreme and frequently uninformed beliefs. Because they don’t understand the philosophical basis for disagreements, they assume the two parties ought to naturally cooperate, and tend to see partisan bickering as a failure and an indication of personal fault by politicians.

Trump thinks about politics like a low-information voter, which enabled him to speak their language naturally. His stated belief during the campaign that he could expertly craft a series of popular deals — “it’s going to be so easy” — appealed to low-information voters because it earnestly described the political world as they see it. Trump’s experience as a developer and professional celebrity have put a narcissistic gloss on Trump’s low-information worldview. He sees politics as a variation of real estate or reality television — a field where the players are sorted not so much as combatants on opposing teams (though they may compete at times) but on a hierarchy of success, with the big stars at the top sharing interests in common. His vague boasts that his presidency would create terrific things that everybody loves and is winning again is a version of how he truly sees the world….

Politics is a strange institution that forces committed professionals who have coherent philosophical beliefs to persuade voters who mostly do not. Barack Obama accomplished this in highbrow fashion. His characteristic political style was to incorporate the values of both left and right and try to … synthesize the perspectives together. (“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”) Trump accomplishes it in lowbrow style, by literally not understanding the source of the disagreement.

On that note, perhaps a bit of humor will help. Here’s Tom Tomorrow of This Modern World from back in 2004. That was the election that pitted the dim-witted, semi-competent incumbent, President George W. Bush, who had already screwed up one way and another for four years, against John Kerry, the respected but boring Senator and future Secretary of State who had married an heiress and wasn’t a “regular guy”:

themodernworld-theundecidedvoter

If There Was Any Doubt

Polls indicate that Americans are evenly split regarding DT’s cruise missile attack on the Syrian airfield last week. A Washington Post poll found 51% in favor, which corresponds to results from Gallup (50%) and YouGov (51%). CBS found 57% in favor, but their poll didn’t mention the unpopular DT by name. We can conclude that the Washington Post poll was reasonably accurate.

Here’s the interesting thing:

In 2013, when Barack Obama was president, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 22 percent of Republicans supported the U.S. launching missile strikes against Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against civilians.

[The] new Post-ABC poll finds that 86 percent of Republicans support [DT’s] decision to launch strikes on Syria for the same reason. Only 11 percent are opposed.

Republican support for attacking Syria went from 22% to 86% when a Republican replaced a Democrat in the White House!

You might say that’s how people are. The Democrats probably switched sides just like the Republicans.

You would be wrong:

For context, 37 percent of Democrats back Trump’s missile strikes. In 2013, 38 percent of Democrats supported Obama’s plan.

In other words, changing Presidents didn’t matter to the Democrats at all (a 1% difference is well within the margin of error).

Do you get the feeling that our Republican friends belong to a tribe in which group loyalty is a paramount virtue? And that other values play a secondary role? For that matter, that facts aren’t as important to them as group loyalty?

Some of the explanation for their astounding fickleness is, no doubt, that the right-wing propaganda they swallowed in 2013 was anti-missile attack, while the right-wing propaganda only four years later was pro-missile-attack. But being this easy to manipulate is just as bad as putting tribal loyalty above everything else. It’s all part of the same sad and dangerous phenomenon. Millions of right-wing Americans care more about group loyalty than reality or morality. If there was any doubt.

In America, Christianity Ain’t What It Used To Be

If you want to understand how America got this way, reading Chris Lehmann’s book The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity and the Unmaking of the American Dream might help. This is from a review by Barrett Swanson at Dissent:

Though few contemporary Christians would likely admit it, many of the American colonies were built upon the idea of redistribution. Those dour Puritans who first populated the territories of New England were not lured by the promise of windfall profits. Nor had they endured months of seasickness and disease for the chance to start a small business. Instead, they were hopeless utopians, runaway apostates of the established church who yearned to embrace a higher manner of being, one founded upon a system of communitarian ethics.

John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sketched the tenets of this new society in a sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he delivered in 1630 while on board a British ship headed across the Atlantic. A gusty ode to American exceptionalism, the homily christened the new continent “The City Upon a Hill,” a metaphor that Ronald Reagan would make a watchword for Republicans some three-hundred-and-fifty years later. But in Winthrop’s eyes what gave the New World its luster were the egalitarian principles of the Protestant gospel, central among them the commitment to redistributing wealth on the basis of individual need. “We must be willing,” Winthrop said, “to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the sakes of others’ necessities . . . we must bear one another’s burdens.”

It is stupefying to consider how, over the course of four centuries, American Christianity would forsake these humble sentiments for the telegenic hucksterism of preachers like Joel Osteen. This Pentecostal quack with a garish smile doesn’t tout the spiritual benefits of communal interdependence. Nor does he acknowledge the ethical requirements of the Christian social contract. Instead, like so many stewards of the “prosperity gospel,” Osteen thinks individual wealth is a hallmark of Christian virtue and urges his followers to reach inside themselves to unlock their hidden potential…. “It doesn’t please God for us to drag through life feeling like miserable failures,” Osteen warns. “God wants you to succeed; He created you to live abundantly.”

How we got from Winthrop to Osteen is the subject of Chris Lehmann’s new book, The Money Cult. Lehmann is interested in how the communitarian spirit of mainline Protestantism was eventually tarnished by the logic of private enterprise. But in the end what he discovers is that, far from being pious victims of a rapacious economic system, mainline churches were very much complicit in “the gradual sanctification of the market.” In fact, throughout the history of the United States, Christian theology was routinely contorted to fit within the narrow priorities of capitalism.

One of the reasons Christianity caught on in the Roman world was that it functioned as a mutual aid society. Helping one’s fellow Christians made a difference in people’s lives, because Rome wasn’t big on universal healthcare or unemployment insurance. But neither was 17th century England. So it makes sense that redistribution (something along the lines of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”) was a guiding principle for the Christians who founded Plymouth Colony.

Today, of course, our fellow citizens who call the U.S. a “Christian” nation think that “redistribution” is a dirty word. A headline in The Washington Post earlier this month noted that “the debate over the Affordable Care Act is really a debate over wealth redistribution”. From Karen Tumulty’s article:

Redistribution of wealth — one of the most radioactive subjects in American politics — has moved from being a subtext in the national debate over health care to being the core of it….

[There is] a bedrock philosophical and ideological question that has always been in the background of any argument about the government’s role in health care: What is the minimum that society should provide for its poorest, most vulnerable citizens, and how much should be taken from the rich and powerful to do it?

…There [are] many ways that Obamacare [redistributes] the burden of medical costs — from the sick to the healthy, with provisions such as the one denying insurers the ability to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions; from the old to the young, with a mandate that everyone have coverage or pay a penalty; from the rich to the poor, with an array of new taxes.

It’s almost as if right-wing opponents of the ACA don’t understand what insurance, including health insurance, is. Tumulty quotes economic historian Bruce Bartlett:

“Republicans argue that redistribution is inherently immoral without acknowledging that the very nature of insurance is redistributive. You’re taking money from people whose houses don’t burn down to give it to the people whose houses do burn down.”

As far as I know, Jesus never talked about health insurance and neither did the Puritans. But Christianity in its pure form is clearly pro-redistribution. Any preacher or politician who says otherwise shouldn’t claim to follow Jesus.

If you’re interested in reading more about Christianity as it’s frequently practiced today, I recommend a long article from 2014 by the journalist Kurt Eichenwald. It’s called “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”: 

…With politicians, social leaders and even some clergy invoking a book they seem to have never read and whose phrases they don’t understand, America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.

The Bible is not the book many American fundamentalists and political opportunists think it is, or more precisely, what they want it to be. Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is well-established. A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals ranked only a smidgen higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament and Jesus’s teachings. “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ wrote … pollsters and researchers whose work focused on religion in the United States. The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found in 2012 that evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees—religious leaders depicted throughout the New Testament as opposing Christ and his message—more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus.

No doubt, Paul Ryan would beg to differ. But who sounds more like Jesus? Was it Ryan when he said the healthy shouldn’t be taxed to help the sick, or John Winthrop when he said “we must bear one another’s burdens”? Here’s a hint from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10:  

“One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

Apple Core! Baltimore!

Finishing my apple this morning, I remembered what used to come next. If you were with a few of your friends, someone would yell “Apple core!” Somebody would respond with “Baltimore!” Next there’d be a question: “Who’s your friend?” At which point, one of us would name somebody else in the group, for example, “Mike!” Then the person holding the apple core would throw it at Mike. This was funny stuff.

I assume this was a fairly common experience for young people in Southern California fifty or sixty years ago. Or maybe my friends and I were the only idiots who did it. I’m wondering now because a brief survey of people who grew up on the East Coast didn’t find anyone who remembered it. (It’s not the kind of thing a person would tend to forget, even after fifty or sixty years.) Presumably, if nobody did it on the East Coast back then, nobody is doing it here now. 

I can’t remember which person in the group called out the opening “Apple core!” or who responded with “Baltimore!”. Nor do I remember who had the honor of naming his “friend”, i.e. the target. But I’m pretty sure it didn’t work the way Donald Duck and either Chip or Dale did it here:

Assuming this was a widespread practice on the West Coast, but not the East Coast, it’s yet more confirmation that the West Coast is the Best Coast. (I’m leaving out the Gulf Coast for obvious reasons.)

For the sake of completeness, here’s the full 1952 Disney cartoon. It’s called “Donald Duck Applecore” and includes Donald’s jazzy theme song under the opening credits.

Finally, for completeness, I should point out that the “Apple core, Baltimore” rhyme appeared in an earlier, feature-length Disney movie called “Melody Time”. It was part of a dance number in the Johnny Appleseed segment. But it apparently took years for the Disney people to invent the best part (throwing the apple core at someone like Mike).

PS: The other Donald still sucks.

A Few Words from Alexander Hamilton on the Present Situation

Quote:

The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion…

When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits—despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

… No popular Government was ever without its Catalines & its Cæsars. These are its true enemies.

Unquote.

From “Objections and Answers respecting the Administration of the Government”, August  18, 1792, available at Founders Online.

Many States, Not Very United

If you asked them, most Americans would say that winning the Revolutionary War was the crucial step in the creation of the United States. The 13 colonies became a new nation once the British went home. Anyway, that’s the impression you’d get from the Wikipedia article about the Treaty of Paris, which put an end to the war eight years after the first shots were fired: 

The Treaty of Paris, signed in Paris by representatives of King George III of Great Britain and representatives of the United States of America on September 3, 1783, ended the American Revolutionary War. The treaty set the boundaries between the British Empire and the United States, on lines “exceedingly generous” to the latter…. Only Article 1 of the treaty, which is the legal underpinning of United States’ existence as a sovereign country, remains in force.

But this is what Article 1 of the treaty says:

His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, [etc.], to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.

Listing all thirteen “sovereign and independent states” from New Hampshire in the north to Georgia in the south is an odd way to refer to a new nation. It made sense, however, because at that point the thirteen colonies considered themselves to be separate states or nations. The “United States” referred to the thirteen countries loosely joined together by the Articles of Confederation:

I.

The Style of this Confederacy shall be “The United States of America”.

II.

Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

III.

The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare…

In his book The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, the historian Joseph Ellis says we should think of the United States at the end of the Revolutionary War as something like the European Union. I’d add that it was more like the EU plus NATO, but the point is that the people we call “Americans” considered themselves to be citizens of their respective states, not U.S. citizens. The colonists had banded together to win their independence from Great Britain. Having succeeded, they were willing to remain part of a “league of friendship”, but nothing more. Having won their freedom from a distant, centralized government, they didn’t want another one, even if the capital would be Philadelphia instead of London. 

After what became known as “Shays’ Rebellion”, an armed anti-government uprising centered in western Massachusetts, some feared that the “league of friendship” would fall apart. According to Ellis:

[Some expected] the complete collapse of the confederation leading to civil wars between the states and predatory intrusions by European powers, chiefly Great Britain and Spain, eager to carve up the North American continent… The more realistic scenario was dissolution into two or three regional confederacies that created an American version of Europe. New England would become like Scandinavia, the middle states like western Europe, the states south of the Potomac like the Mediterranean countries.

The New England press enhanced the credibility of such prophecies, observing that the attempt at a national union was obviously a failure because regional differences made political consensus impossible. The only option was a union of the five New England states, “leaving the rest of the continent to pursue their own imbecilic and disjointed plans”.

It should be noted that even during the writing of the Articles of Confederation, the state of South Carolina threatened to walk away over the issue of slavery, a threat that was finally carried out when South Carolina seceded from the Union 80 years later.

Looking back, John Adams wondered how the colonies had ever agreed on anything:

The colonies had grown up under conditions so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, habits had so little resemblance and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles … and the same system of action, was certainly a difficult enterprise.

Considering America’s subsequent history, including the regional conflict that led to the Civil War; the continuing resistance to Federal law in the southern states during Reconstruction and into the 20th century; the current division between consistently “Red” and “Blue” states; the popularity of right-wing news media that cater to a desire for “alternative facts” in opposition to what’s reported in the “mainstream” media; and the bizarre fact that we hold 51 elections, separately administered by the individual states, in order to elect a President, it’s fair to say that creating a United States that’s truly united continues to be a “difficult enterprise” and may never succeed.