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 Us, Part 2

What should a humble blogger do when there is only one subject that seems worth writing about, but it feels like there’s nothing new to say?

I could call attention to the latest offenses, but don’t we already know enough to realize how important it is to vote against Republicans at every opportunity? And that giving Democrats some control over Congress next year is crucial?

Does it do any good to remind ourselves that a meager 70,000 votes in three states gave that terrible person an Electoral College victory, and that to win he needed an illegal Russian social media campaign, the illegal Russian hacking of the Clinton campaign and the improper (and probably illegal) efforts of Cambridge Analytica to poison the internet, as well as the FBI’s seriously improper intervention in the election? Will it help to know more about the millions of dollars that appear to have been illegally donated to the National Rifle Association by a Russian oligarch so that the NRA could spend more than they ever had before in support of a presidential candidate?

Do we really need to be reminded, in the words of the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin, that our president “hates criticism; must continually pummel his opponents; never bothers to learn about subjects on which he expounds; thinks everyone in government owes their personal loyalty to him; means what he says for only a fleeting instant; confounds allies with policy zigzags; bullies and blusters; lies continually; and, despite his bravado, cannot take on those to whom he apparently owes his presidency (e.g., the National Rifle Association, the Kremlin)”?

Will it make a difference if we learn more about the Trump family’s corruption, his cabinet’s misbehavior, the continuing crisis in Puerto Rico or how many more civilians we’re killing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria? At this point, it shouldn’t make any difference at all to the support we give Democratic candidates.

So this humble blogger doesn’t see the point in writing about our political situation, even though our political situation feels like the only thing worth writing about. I mean, if you’re falling from the roof of a very tall building, is there any point in calling for help? If there isn’t, is there another topic that deserves your attention?

For now, therefore, I’ll leave you with a followup to last month’s “They Really Are Different From the Rest of Us”. It’s been shown in various studies that conservatives are more fearful than liberals. This is from an article in the Washington Post last year:

… Over a decade now of research in political psychology consistently shows that how physically threatened or fearful a person feels is a key factor — although clearly not the only one — in whether he or she holds conservative or liberal attitudes.

Conservatives, it turns out, react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do. In fact, their greater concern with physical safety seems to be determined early in life: In one University of California study, the more fear a 4-year-old showed in a laboratory situation, the more conservative his or her political attitudes were found to be 20 years later. Brain imaging studies have even shown that the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in conservatives than in liberals.

This helps explain why conservatives who live in small towns in almost empty places are more worried about terrorist attacks and immigration than liberals who live in big cities that have actually experienced terrorist attacks and are filled with immigrants.

The author of the article, a Yale psychologist, goes on:

And many other laboratory studies have found that when adult liberals experienced physical threat, their political and social attitudes became more conservative (temporarily, of course). But no one had ever turned conservatives into liberals.

Until we did.

These psychologists at Yale had groups of Republicans and Democrats answer survey questions about political topics like immigration:

But before they answered the survey questions, we had them engage in an intense imagination exercise. They were asked to close their eyes and richly imagine being visited by a genie who granted them a superpower. For half of our participants, this superpower was to be able to fly, under one’s own power. For the other half, it was to be completely physically safe, invulnerable to any harm.

If they had just imagined being able to fly, their responses to the social attitude survey showed the usual clear difference between Republicans and Democrats — the former endorsed more conservative positions on social issues and were also more resistant to social change in general.

But if they had instead just imagined being completely physically safe, the Republicans became significantly more liberal — their positions on social attitudes were much more like the Democratic respondents. And on the issue of social change in general, the Republicans’ attitudes were now indistinguishable from the Democrats. Imagining being completely safe from physical harm had done what no experiment had done before — it had turned conservatives into liberals.

The article mentions other demonstrations of this phenomenon. And I assume that any changes made to the conservatives’ thinking were temporary. But understanding the fundamental fearfulness of our right-wing friends helps explain how strangely they behave. It also helps explain why right-wing media is awash in stories meant to terrify. To conservatives, the world outside their control and filled with strangers is a scary place, full of danger and disruption, so politicians who tell them how bad everything is but promise to protect them (“Only I can protect you”) win their support. I don’t know if it’s possible to make these people less fearful, except temporarily. Eventually some will get used to new realities and older people tend to die off. Meanwhile, we all have to vote every chance we get.

A Genuine Risk

The president won’t read it, but Vox has an important article called “Here’s What War with North Korea Would Look Like”:

For all the talk of nuclear exchanges and giant buttons, there has been little realistic discussion of what a war on the Korean Peninsula might mean, how it could escalate, what commitments would be required, and what sacrifices would be demanded.

So I’ve spent the past month posing those questions to more than a dozen former Pentagon officials, CIA analysts, US military officers, and think tank experts, as well as to a retired South Korean general who spent his entire professional life preparing to fight the North. They’ve all said variants of the same thing: There is a genuine risk of a war on the Korean Peninsula that would involve the use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Several estimated that millions — plural — would die.

Even more frightening, most of the people I spoke to said they believed Kim would use nuclear weapons against South Korea in the initial stages of the fighting — not just as a desperate last resort….

War is inherently unpredictable: It’s possible Kim would use every type of weapon of mass destruction he possesses, and it’s possible he wouldn’t use any of them.

But many leading experts fear the worst. And if all of this sounds frightening, it should. A new war on the Korean Peninsula wouldn’t be as bad as you think. It would be much, much worse.

Since you’re not the president, you can read it here.

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.

I Want to Wear a Uniform with a Big Hat Too

It’s no surprise that our president is a big fan of military parades. He loved the Bastille Day parade he attended in Paris last year and a similar parade he saw in China. Regarding the latter one, he remarked:

The hosting of the military parade this morning was magnificent, and the world was watching. I’ve already had people calling from all parts of the world. They were all watching. Nothing you can see is so beautiful.

It is now being reported that the president has directed the Pentagon to plan a military parade in Washington. November 11th (Veteran’s Day) has been mentioned as a possible date (although I bet he’ll want to stage it before Election Day, not after).

In response, Major General (Retired) Paul Eaton, an adviser to the progressive organization Vote Vets, issued the following statement:

Donald Trump has continually shown himself to have authoritarian tendencies, and this is another worrisome example.

For someone who just declared it was “treasonous” not to applaud him, and for someone who has, in the past, admired the tactics of everyone from Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin, it is clear that a military parade isn’t about saluting the military — it is about making a display of the military saluting him.

The military is not Donald Trump’s to use and abuse in this way. Our military is the very best in the world — they are not to be reduced to stagecraft to prop up Donald Trump’s image. Any commander-in-chief who respects the traditions of the military would understand that.

Unfortunately, we do not have a commander-in-chief right now, as much as we have a wannabe banana republic strongman.

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It’s only a matter of time.

That He’s Against Democracy Is Considered a Plus

Another big question about this president — besides “why didn’t they realize he’s a con man?” — is “why don’t Republican politicians stand up to him?” Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine offers an answer:

Republican elites who opposed Trump during the primary, as most of them did, had different reasons for their opposition. But a central rationale for conservative opposition was the belief that Trump would deviate from conservative policy. The keystone editorial in National Review’s celebrated “Against Trump” special issue revolved around the candidate’s lack of ideological consistency:

“Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones … Trump’s political opinions have wobbled all over the lot. The real-estate mogul and reality-TV star has supported abortion, gun control, single-payer health care à la Canada, and punitive taxes on the wealthy…. Since declaring his candidacy he has taken a more conservative line, yet there are great gaping holes in it … Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism.”

The key phrase here is the last one, “menace to American conservatism.” It is distinct from, say, a menace to the republic. Non-conservatives may have read into conservative anti-Trumpism a set of shared, small-d democratic concerns. But the major fear that stalked the right was the specter of higher marginal tax rates and bipartisan health-care legislation. To the extent that conservatives raised concerns about Trump’s ignorance and authoritarianism, it was harnessed to his lack of ideological commitment. Conservatives could imagine Trump as an American Perón, catering to the masses with a populist agenda while sidelining the conservative elite.

What did not especially trouble them was the prospect of Trump as an American Pinochet. (Augusto Pinochet was the Chilean general who overthrew a democratically elected socialist government and implemented free-market policies, with the advice and enthusiastic support of American conservatives.) And while Trump has proven every bit as ignorant and instinctively authoritarian as his worst enemies feared, he has vanquished nearly all right-wing doubts about his ideological bona fides (or, at least, his malleability to the same end).

The idea that Trump’s anti-democratic qualities per se would alienate him from his party is a fantasy that rests upon a deep misunderstanding of conservatism. The Republican Party is attracted to anti-democratic means, so long as they’re used for the correct ends. Look at North Carolina, where Republicans designed a vote-restriction measure that, a judge found, would “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” and then greeted the election of a Democratic governor by stripping him of his powers before he could assume office. Or look at Pennsylvania, where the party is so determined to lock in a voting map that allows them to rule as a minority that, when the State Supreme Court ruled its anti-democratic scheme unconstitutional, the party first defied the court’s authority, and is now working to impeach the justices. None of these maneuvers has provoked any significant intra-party dissent.

Against this chilling backdrop, the president’s frequently stated intent to make federal law enforcement a weapon to protect his party and investigate his opponents hardly even registers. Indeed, Trump’s routine authoritarian bluster nestles comfortably into a party where panic about unfriendly demographic changes has curdled into deep suspicion of the principle of majority rule. Trump as an individual is surely a grotesque outlier. But the overall direction of his presidency is an outgrowth of the party’s long-standing direction. Conservatives once feared Trump as a blunt instrument. Now they recognize and appreciate that the blunt instrument is a weapon of their cause.

He campaigned as if he was a “small-d” democrat, but he governs like a Republican, only more so.