The Corruption of the Republican Party, Minus 400 Words

An internet person said: if you’re going to read one article this week, it should be “The Corruption of the Republican Party” by the American journalist and author George Packer. Of the article’s 2,100 words, I think the 1,700 below are the most important.

Why has the Republican Party become so thoroughly corrupt? The reason is historical—it goes back many decades—and, in a way, philosophical. The party is best understood as an insurgency that carried the seeds of its own corruption from the start.

I don’t mean the kind of corruption that regularly sends lowlifes … to prison. Those abuses are nonpartisan and always with us. So is vote theft of the kind we’ve just seen in North Carolina…

And I don’t just mean that the Republican Party is led by the boss of a kleptocratic family business who presides over a scandal-ridden administration, that many of his closest advisers are facing prison time, that Donald Trump himself might have to stay in office just to avoid prosecution…

The corruption I mean has less to do with individual perfidy than institutional depravity. It isn’t an occasional failure to uphold norms, but a consistent repudiation of them. It isn’t about dirty money so much as the pursuit and abuse of power—power as an end in itself, justifying almost any means…. it’s far more dangerous than graft. There are legal remedies for Duncan Hunter, a representative from California, who will stand trial next year for using campaign funds to pay for family luxuries. But there’s no obvious remedy for what the state legislatures of Wisconsin and Michigan, following the example of North Carolina in 2016, are now doing.

Republican majorities are rushing to pass laws that strip away the legitimate powers of newly elected Democratic governors while defeated or outgoing Republican incumbents are still around to sign the bills. Even if the courts overturn some of these power grabs, as they have in North Carolina, Republicans will remain securely entrenched in the legislative majority through their own hyper-gerrymandering—in Wisconsin last month, 54 percent of the total votes cast for major-party candidates gave Democrats just 36 of 99 assembly seats—so they will go on passing laws to thwart election results. Nothing can stop these abuses short of an electoral landslide. In Wisconsin…, that means close to 60 percent of the total vote.

The fact that no plausible election outcome can check the abuse of power is what makes political corruption so dangerous. It strikes at the heart of democracy. It destroys the compact between the people and the government. In rendering voters voiceless, it pushes everyone closer to the use of undemocratic means.

Today’s Republican Party has cornered itself with a base of ever older, whiter, more male, more rural, more conservative voters…. They could have tried to expand; instead, they’ve hardened and walled themselves off. This is why, while voter fraud knows no party, only the Republican Party wildly overstates the risk so that it can pass laws (including right now in Wisconsin, with a bill that reduces early voting) to limit the franchise in ways that have a disparate partisan impact. This is why, when some Democrats in the New Jersey legislature proposed to enshrine gerrymandering in the state constitution, other Democrats, in New Jersey and around the country, objected [and the proposal was withdrawn].

Taking away democratic rights—extreme gerrymandering; blocking an elected president from nominating a Supreme Court justice; selectively paring voting rolls and polling places; creating spurious anti-fraud commissions; misusing the census to undercount the opposition; calling lame-duck legislative sessions to pass laws against the will of the voters—is the Republican Party’s main political strategy, and will be for years to come.

Republicans have chosen contraction and authoritarianism because, unlike the Democrats, their party isn’t a coalition of interests in search of a majority. Its character is ideological. The Republican Party we know is a product of the modern conservative movement, and that movement is a series of insurgencies against the established order. Several of its intellectual founders … were shaped early on by Communist ideology and practice, and their Manichean thinking, their conviction that the salvation of Western civilization depended on the devoted work of a small group of illuminati, marked the movement at its birth.

The first insurgency was the nomination of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. He campaigned as a rebel against the postwar American consensus and the soft middle of his own party’s leadership. Goldwater didn’t use the standard, reassuring lexicon of the big tent and the mainstream. At the San Francisco convention, he embraced extremism and denounced the Republican establishment, whose “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” His campaign lit a fire of excitement that spread to millions of readers through the pages of two self-published prophesies of the apocalypse, Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo and John A. Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason. According to these mega-sellers, the political opposition wasn’t just wrong—it was a sinister conspiracy with totalitarian goals…

The insurgents were agents of history, and history was long. To avoid despair, they needed the clarity that only ideology (“the truth”) can give. The task in 1964 was to recruit and train conservative followers… Established institutions that concealed the truth—schools, universities, newspapers, the Republican Party itself—would have to be swept away and replaced or entered and cleansed…  these were not the words and ideas of democratic politics, with its ungainly coalitions and unsatisfying compromises.

During this first insurgency, the abiding contours of the movement took shape… Conservatives nursed a victim’s sense of grievance—the system was stacked against them, cabals of the powerful were determined to lock them out—and they showed more energetic interest than their opponents in the means of gaining power: mass media, new techniques of organizing, rhetoric, ideas. Finally, the movement was founded in the politics of racism. Goldwater’s strongest support came from white southerners reacting against civil rights…. Modern conservatism would never stop flirting with hostility toward whole groups of Americans. And from the start this stance opened the movement to extreme, sometimes violent fellow travelers.

It took only 16 years, with the election of Ronald Reagan, for the movement and party to merge. During those years, conservatives hammered away at institutional structures, denouncing the established ones for their treacherous liberalism, and building alternatives, in the form of well-funded right-wing foundations, think tanks, business lobbies, legal groups, magazines, publishers, professorships. When Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the products of this “counter-establishment” … were ready to take power.

Reagan commanded a revolution, but he himself didn’t have a revolutionary character. He didn’t think the public needed to be indoctrinated and organized, only heard.

But conservatism remained an insurgent politics during the 1980s and ’90s, and the more power it amassed—in government, business, law, media—the more it set itself against the fragile web of established norms and delighted in breaking them. The second insurgency was led by Newt Gingrich, who had come to Congress two years before Reagan became president, with the avowed aim of overthrowing the established Republican leadership and shaping the minority party into a fighting force that could break Democratic rule by shattering what he called the “corrupt left-wing machine.” Gingrich liked to quote Mao’s definition of politics as “war without blood.” He made audiotapes that taught Republican candidates how to demonize the opposition with labels such as “disgrace,” “betray,” and  “traitors.” When he became speaker of the House, at the head of yet another revolution, Gingrich announced, “There will be no compromise.” How could there be, when he was leading a crusade to save American civilization from its liberal enemies?

Even after Gingrich was driven from power, … he regularly churned out books that warned of imminent doom—unless America turned to a leader like him (he once called himself “teacher of the rules of civilization,” among other exalted epithets). Unlike Goldwater and Reagan, Gingrich never had any deeply felt ideology. It was hard to say exactly what “American civilization” meant to him. What he wanted was power, and what he most obviously enjoyed was smashing things to pieces in its pursuit. His insurgency started the conservative movement on the path to nihilism.

The party purged itself of most remaining moderates, growing ever-more shallow as it grew ever-more conservative… Jeff Flake, the outgoing senator from Arizona, … describes this deterioration as “a race to the bottom to see who can be meaner and madder and crazier. It is not enough to be conservative anymore. You have to be vicious.” The viciousness doesn’t necessarily reside in the individual souls of Republican leaders. It flows from the party’s politics, which seeks to delegitimize opponents and institutions, purify the ranks through purges and coups, and agitate followers with visions of apocalypse—all in the name of an ideological cause that every year loses integrity as it becomes indistinguishable from power itself.

The third insurgency came in reaction to the election of Barack Obama—it was the Tea Party. Eight years later, it culminated in Trump’s victory… In the third insurgency, the features of the original movement surfaced again, more grotesque than ever: paranoia and conspiracy thinking; racism and other types of hostility toward entire groups; innuendos and incidents of violence. The new leader is like his authoritarian counterparts abroad: illiberal, demagogic, hostile to institutional checks, demanding and receiving complete acquiescence from the party, and enmeshed in the financial corruption that is integral to the political corruption of these regimes. Once again, liberals … couldn’t grasp how it happened. Neither could some conservatives who still believed in democracy.

The corruption of the Republican Party in the Trump era seemed to set in with breathtaking speed. In fact, it took more than a half century to reach the point where faced with a choice between democracy and power, the party chose the latter. Its leaders don’t see a dilemma—democratic principles turn out to be disposable tools, sometimes useful, sometimes inconvenient. The higher cause is conservatism, but the highest is power. After Wisconsin Democrats swept statewide offices last month, Robin Vos, speaker of the assembly, explained why Republicans would have to get rid of the old rules: “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”

As Bertolt Brecht wrote of East Germany’s ruling party:

Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

The Election, and More Democracy in Chains

It’s taken almost a month to count almost all the ballots. We now know that the Democrats did extremely well in November’s election. Nationwide, Democratic candidates received 59.5 million votes against 50.5 million for the Republicans. A 9-million vote margin is the largest in the history of midterm elections. Winning 53% of the vote against 45% for the Republicans was the biggest percentage difference in a midterm election since 1974, the year Nixon resigned.

As a result, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, winning 235 seats to the Republicans’ 200. They also won many state and local races. One result is that most Americans will have Democratic governors starting in January. The Democrats might have taken the U.S. Senate but for the fact that they were defending 26 seats in this election vs. 9 seats for the Republicans. Ten of those Democratic seats were especially vulnerable, representing states that voted for the candidate now known in various indictments and plea agreements as “Individual-1”.

What nobody knows is how well the Democrats would have done if Republican efforts at voter suppression hadn’t been so successful. The Center for American Progress published a long article two weeks ago on “Voter Suppression in the 2018 Midterm Elections”. The authors discuss voter registration problems, voter purges, strict ID and ballot requirements, misleading instructions, malfunctioning equipment, intimidation, harassment, poll closures and long lines, as well as gerrymandering. The authors are too polite to say so, but Republican officials were responsible for each example of bad behavior they cite.

An article from Vox describes what went on in two large southern states:

For example, in Georgia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp used his position as secretary of state to purge an estimated 107,000 people from the voter registration rolls just because they had not voted recently — with the majority of counties purging black voters at higher rates than whites. He put another 53,000 voter registration applications “on hold” — 70 percent of which were from black Georgians. And when people showed up to vote in predominantly black counties, they faced impossibly long lines produced by the closure of 214 polling places since 2012, as well as faulty voting machines. Later, we would learn that 700 voting machines were left wrapped and unused in a nearby warehouse in Atlanta.

All of this happened on top of Georgia’s existing strict voter ID law, which imposed an additional barrier to voting that disproportionately disadvantaged black voters. Nationwide, 25 percent of black Americans lack government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8 percent of whites. A variety of systemic barriers make it harder for people of color to obtain a photo ID. For example, many older black residents lack birth certificates or other required documentation to get an ID. As a consequence, strict voter ID laws like Georgia’s have been shown to significantly and disproportionately reduce turnout among black and brown voters.

Similar issues were reported in Florida, where in addition to purges and polling place closures, there were widespread reports suggesting thousands of voters never received the absentee ballots they requested, and absentee ballots that were submitted by black and Latinx voters were rejected at higher rates due to “signature mismatch”.

Was it a coincidence that the Republican candidates for governor won close elections in both states last month?

The fact is that voter suppression has been official and unofficial Republican policy for decades. I just finished reading Democracy In Chains, a book I wrote about two weeks ago. The key sentence in its 235 pages of text is the one in which the author quotes a Nobel Prize-winning economist named James Buchanan. The late Mr. Buchanan deserves to be known as the intellectual godfather of today’s Republican Party. He is quoted as saying that what we Americans need to do is to get rid of “the sacrosanct status of majority rule”. Minority rule, assuming it’s the right minority, would be much better. That sums up today’s radical Republican Party.

If you want to read more about Democracy In Chains, an almost unbelievable description of Republican efforts to install minority rule, please go here.

Democracy in Chains

Publishers and book critics sometimes say a particular book is one that every American, or every thinking American, or every American who cares about such and such, should read. I’m reading one of them now. If you want to understand U.S. politics, you should read Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. It’s by Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University.

MacClean explains how a small group of libertarian and conservative academics began a movement in the 1950s that eventually led to the rightward shift in American politics. So many on the right are so deeply committed to low taxes, privatization, deregulation and making it hard (for some people) to vote because, to borrow a phrase from John Maynard Keynes, they are “the slaves of some defunct  economist[s] … distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler[s] of a few years back”.

This radical right-wing agenda favors property over democracy. They hate the idea that a majority of voters can elect politicians who will interfere with a rich person’s right to accumulate and keep as much stuff as possible. As a result, they look  for ways to dilute the majority’s ability to effect change.

MacClean discusses one case in which the right’s “stealth program” was implemented. The key figure in her book, a Virginia Tech economist named James Buchanan, helped transform Chile after Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a military coup in 1973:

For it was Buchanan who guided Pinochet’s team in how to arrange things so that [Chile’s] capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power….

If Jim Buchanan had qualms about helping to design a constitution for a dictatorship or the process by which [it] was ratified, … he did not commit them to print…

What’s perplexing is how a man whose life’s mission was the promotion of what he … called the free society reconciled himself … to what a military junta was doing to the people of Chile. The new Chile was free for some, … the same kind of people who counted in Virginia in the era when [Buchanan fought desegregation]. It was also, always, a particular kind of freedom the libertarians cared most about. One Chilean [rejoiced] that “the individual freedom to consume, produce, save and invest has been restored”.

… Chile emerged with a set of rules closer to his ideal than any in existence, built to repel future popular pressure for change. [The new constitution] was a “virtually unamendable charter”, … radically skewed by the over-representation of the wealthy, the military and the less popular political parties associated with them. Buchanan had long called for binding rules to protect economic liberty and constrain majority power, and [the constitution] guaranteed these as never before”.

Among the right-wing “reforms” instituted by the Pinochet dictatorship were lower taxes for corporations and the wealthy, devastating restrictions on unions, privatization of the social security system, privatization of health care, a less independent judicial system, limits on the government’s ability to issue regulations, school vouchers in place of funding for public education and forcing state universities to become “self-financing”. If this list of “modernizations” sounds familiar, it should. It’s the public agenda of today’s Republican Party.

Since it isn’t good public relations for a political party or government to say it’s against majority rule, however, the right’s intention to install and maintain minority rule isn’t publicly stated. But after seizing power, Pinochet ruled as a dictator for years. In the U.S., the right-wing justices on the Supreme Court have given more political power to corporations and the rich, while undermining the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and Republican politicians in states like Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin have made it less likely that poor people and certain minorities will vote, all the while claiming they are only interested in fighting a phenomenon, voter fraud, which they know is extremely rare.

The good news is that the resurgent Democratic Party is dedicated to making voting easier and more representative. In addition, there are efforts underway in a number of states to eliminate gerrymandering of congressional districts and to make the undemocratic Electoral College irrelevant. Others are calling for the citizens of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to be given full voting rights. Changes will come eventually, since the majority still has some power. Meanwhile, if you want to understand our current politics, read Democracy in Chains

How It Is and How It Got This Way (26 Days)

Quote

Our new Supreme Court Justice, Bart O’Kavanaugh, the noted liar, aka the Keg Meister, took a hard line in his first appearance with the court. He said an immigrant who committed a minor crime thirty years ago and did his time is still subject to being locked up. Even his right-wing colleague, Neil Gorsuch, didn’t go that far:

The question in the case was whether the federal authorities must detain immigrants who had committed crimes, often minor ones, no matter how long ago they were released from criminal custody. Justice Kavanaugh said a 1996 federal law required detention even years later, without an opportunity for a bail hearing.

“What was really going through Congress’s mind in 1996 was harshness on this topic,” he said.

But Justice Gorsuch suggested that mandatory detentions of immigrants long after they completed their sentences could be problematic. “Is there any limit on the government’s power?” he asked.

Now we know O’Kavanaugh will take bad behavior seriously even if it happened thirty years ago, as long as it allows him to make life difficult for an immigrant. 

For more ugly truths about the Supreme Court, “How It Is and How It Got This Way (27 Days)”, go here:  An Ingenious Device for Avoiding Thought.

Vote En Masse For Its Extinction

Below is quoted almost all of “T—P Is Making Us All Live in His Delusional Reality Show” by Andrew Sullivan (New York Magazine):

It seems so long ago now. Almost immediately after Trump took office, the denial of reality began. The president’s and his spokesperson’s insistence that his inauguration crowd was the biggest in history — and certainly bigger than Obama’s — belied what everyone could see with their bare, lyin’ eyes. At the time, I wondered whether the president was psychologically unwell. Three thousand lies later, we have a fuller picture.

The president believes what he wants to believe, creates a reality that fits his delusions, and then insists, with extraordinary energy and stamina, that his delusions are the truth. His psychological illness, moreover, is capable of outlasting anyone else’s mental health. Objective reality that contradicts his delusions is discounted as “fake news” propagated by “our country’s greatest enemy,” i.e., reporters. If someone behaved like this in my actual life, if someone kept insisting that the sea was red and the sky green, I’d assume they were a few sandwiches short of a picnic. It’s vital for us to remember this every day: Almost no one else in public life is so openly living in his own disturbed world.

This past week was a kind of masterpiece in delusion. It was a long version of that surreal video his National Security Council created for Kim Jong-un. It was crude, crass, and absurd. I can’t begin to unpack the madness, but it’s worth counting the bizarre things Trump said and did in such a short space of time. Trump clearly believes that Canada’s milk exports are a verifiable national security threat to the United States. He thinks Justin Trudeau’s banal press conference, reiterating Canada’s position on trade, was a “stab in the back.” And he insists that the nuclear threat from North Korea is now over — “Sleep well!” — because he gave Kim the kind of legitimacy the North Korean national gulag has always craved, and received in turn around 400 words from Pyongyang, indistinguishable from previous statements made to several presidents before him. For good measure, he took what was, according to The Wall Street Journal, Vladimir Putin’s advice — I kid you not — to cancel the forthcoming joint military exercises with the South Koreans. More than that, he has offered to withdraw all U.S. troops from the peninsula at some point, before Pyongyang has agreed to anything. He regards all of this as worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, his Reagan moment. And he is constructing a reality-television show in which he is a World Historical Figure.

This, in fact, is the poignant and quite bonkers script in Trump’s head: that the economy was in free-fall until he took office, after which it soared; that he alone has brought black and Hispanic unemployment down; that his administration has accomplished more than any other at this point in its term; that the Democrats colluded with the Kremlin to try to rig the election; that Robert Mueller is a closet Democrat; that climate change is a hoax; that the American-created international trading system was designed to hurt the U.S.; that you can borrow over a trillion dollars in a full employment economy with no consequences in inflation or debt; and that sabotaging the ACA will lead to lower premiums, greater choice, and better health outcomes for all. Each one of these assertions is what he wants to be true. And so they are true. As the chairwoman of the GOP just explained to any skeptics left in the formerly conservative party: “Anyone that does not embrace the Donald Trump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake.”

The bad news is that a vast chunk of the American public wants all this to be true as well. If you had any doubts that the GOP is now a cult, this week’s primary results should put them to rest. Republican voters have decided that they will follow their leader no matter what he says, and if that means changing their minds on a dime, so be it. Take Canada. Not so long ago, it was funny to attack our benevolent neighbor to the north. Countless episodes of South Park wouldn’t have worked without the baseline of reality that Canada is about as good and boring a neighbor as you can possibly imagine. But Trump has the power to change minds instantly. So in February this year, 94 percent had a favorable view of Canada. Now, only 66 percent have a favorable view, with 13 in opposition and 22 percent suddenly unsure. Only two years ago, free trade was as solid a shibboleth for the GOP as it gets; now, it’s anathema, even for Larry Kudlow! And watching every Republican senator, apart from McCain, Flake, and Corker (all retiring), stay utterly silent after their president praised a mass-murdering dictator and gave him a global PR coup … well, it’s no longer surprising, but it should remain shocking.

I’m not opposed to his meeting Kim Jong-un, by the way. It’s worth a shot…. I even see the point of withdrawing U.S. troops at some point…. But I’m afraid I cannot forgive or forget Trump’s praise for the most hideously totalitarian regime on the planet, for a bloodthirsty scion who conducts regular public hangings, keeps his subjects in a state of mind-control, holds hundreds of thousands in concentration camps, and threatens the world with nuclear destruction. To watch an American president give his tacit blessing to all of that, to laud Kim for being “rough” on his people, right on the heels of attacking every democratic ally, is an obscenity.

And this was the response of the secretary of State, when asked, inevitably, how the U.S. could in any way verify North Korea’s promised denuclearization: “I find that question insulting and ridiculous and, frankly, ludicrous.” It’s ludicrous, he explained, because the president said there will be verification of denuclearization. And so there will be. Get that? Just lean into the delusion, and everything will be well. Trump’s various mouthpieces have resorted to exactly that formula, when asked difficult or obvious questions that assume a reality different from Trump’s. The empirical questions — those that reference the real world — are “ludicrous,” “inappropriate,” or “ridiculous.” But then when the Trump peons can’t answer the question, because it would reveal Trump as a fantasist, what else are they supposed to do? Show a propaganda video made by the National Security Council?

For that matter, what are we going to do? Every time Trump extends his ludicrous, ridiculous, and insulting reality show for another season, and every time the Republican Party echoes every delusion within it, there’s a big temptation to give in, give up, or look away. A numbness soon takes over. So many of my friends are turning off and tuning out, their decency reflexes exhausted with the pace of the indecency. With the Democrats incapable of consistently debunking this rolling farce, let alone attracting any media space to promote their alternatives, the press is the only viable opposition. But even journalists are getting exhausted. The grosse Lüge works, and the longer the spell is maintained, the stronger it gets. The more people who call the emperor clothed, the harder it is to see him as stark naked. I’m sorry to report that for the first time since April of 2017, Nate Silver calculates that the gap between his disapproval and approval numbers is now in single digits.

Havel had a phrase: “Living in the truth.” In a totalitarian society, living in the truth can be close to impossible, and yet it was possible for someone, as Havel analogized, as lowly as a greengrocer to refuse to “live in a lie”:

The original and most important sphere of activity, one that predetermines all the others, is simply an attempt to create and support the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth. In other words, serving truth consistently, purposefully, and articulately, and organizing this service. This is only natural, after all: if living within the truth is an elementary starting point for every attempt made by people to oppose the alienating pressure of the system, if it is the only meaningful basis of any independent act of political import, and if, ultimately, it is also the most intrinsic existential source of the “dissident” attitude, then it is difficult to imagine that even manifest “dissent” could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life.

Havel and many others were capable of living in truth in far darker circumstances than our own, and at far greater personal risk. But to cling to this now — to empiricism, facts, to what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, to what we can say in plain English — is to commit to the central and most essential task of resistance. We live in a lie now, perpetrated from the very top, enhanced by relentless propaganda, and designed to shore up what is a cult. It is growing in strength. It is precisely now that we must manage at every moment to dispel it. And then to vote, en masse, for its extinction.

I would add that those in the media who repeat his nonsense, in headlines, for example, without simultaneously referring to it as nonsense are also playing their role. 

But, yes, we who respect reality must VOTE EN MASSE FOR HIS DELUSIONAL REALITY SHOW’S EXTINCTION.