This Is Happening Right Now

Like other governments, the government of the United States has sometimes separated children from their parents, but our government has never done it like this until now. (There is a monster living in the White House.)

Jonathan Chait summarizes:

The Trump administration is holding the children of migrants hostage, in both the literal and the figurative sense. Literally: The children are taken from their parents in order to leverage the behavior of adult migrants. And figuratively: The administration is leveraging the suffering of these families in order to pressure Democrats into capitulating to the administration’s policy demands. President Trump, reports Axios, “views the issue as leverage, and will try to get funding for a border wall or other concessions for a rollback of the policy.”

The hostage strategy arises from a profound internal division within not only the Republican Party but the Trump administration itself. The administration originally enacted a policy of separating child migrants from their parents in order to deter those families from entering the country. Chief of Staff John Kelly defended family separation last month as “a tough deterrent.” Also last month, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen laid out the tough policy: “If you are single adult, if you are part of a family, if you are pregnant, if you have any other condition, you’re an adult and you break the law, we will refer you. Operationally what that means is we will have to separate your family.” To justify this powerful new deterrent, the White House “interpreted a 1997 legal agreement and a 2008 bipartisan human trafficking bill as requiring the separation of families,” an interpretation neither of the previous two administrations supported.

Unsurprisingly, the policy of separating children from their parents has proven unbearably cruel in practice. Not everybody within the Republican Party or even the administration itself is still willing to defend its own handiwork. And so the administration’s public explanation of this policy toggles between three mutually exclusive positions.

One, the policy exists and is good (“It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry. Period,” says Stephen Miller.) Two, the policy does not exist. (“We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period,” insists Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.) And third, the policy does exist, and is bad, and the Democrats are to blame (“I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law — that’s their law,” declared President Trump.)

A recent poll finds the public opposed to child separation by a 56/37 percent margin, but Republicans somewhat in favor (46/32 percent). Another finds even more stark differences — the public opposes family separation by a 66/27 percent margin, but Republicans favor it, 55/35 percent.

Horrible events are coming to light every day. For instance, this from a few hours ago:

ProPublica has obtained audio from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, in which children can be heard wailing as an agent jokes, “We have an orchestra here.”

The desperate sobbing of 10 Central American children, separated from their parents one day last week by immigration authorities at the border, makes for excruciating listening. Many of them sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe. They scream “Mami” and “Papá” over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.

The baritone voice of a Border Patrol agent booms above the crying. “Well, we have an orchestra here,” he jokes. “What’s missing is a conductor.”

You can read more and hear the recording here, if you can stand it. I only listened for a few seconds. Unlike the unidentified Border Patrol agent, most of us don’t enjoy children being abused and traumatized. (Would it help if the president were forced to listen to that recording? I’m wondering how it would affect a powerful sociopath.)

There is a bill in the Senate designed to end this barbarism. Every Democratic senator has announced support for the bill. None of the Republicans have, although some have expressed concerns about the administration policy. There is no indication it will even come to a vote, given Republican control of the senate. Only the president can end this today, although he can’t erase the traumatic memories. Nor can he change the fact that thousands of children will still be separated from their parents, perhaps forever, given the circumstances of their lives and the way government agencies sometimes do their jobs. 

Some final thoughts from David Roberts, who writes for Vox.com:

Look at what US conservatives are able to justify to themselves — relative to what you thought was sane, normal politics just 2 years ago. Now ask yourself: if the permission structure were in place, do you have *any* doubt that they would support much worse?

US institutions may at some point provide a backstop, halting the slide. But do you have any remaining illusions that anyone or anything *within* the conservative coalition would stop it? That they would draw the line at, I dunno, cancelled elections or ethnic purges?

Of course, it sounds ridiculous & hysterical to talk about cancelled elections today — just as, a year ago, it would have sounded ridiculous & hysterical to talk about concentration camps for immigrant children. That’s kind of how this works.

One truth that’s held steady in US politics for my entire adult life: the US conservative movement will always get worse — more lawless, intolerant, heedless of norms or decency. Always. At every stage, there’s a temptation to think it’s as bad as it can get. It isn’t.

PS: Sure, our government has waged unjust wars, destroyed the lives of countless American Indians and supported the terrible institution of slavery, but treating people who want to come here in this way has no precedent.

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.

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.

Tribalism On Parade

People often say left-wingers and right-wingers aren’t that different. Whichever side we’re on, we all belong to a political tribe. We’re all live in our own bubbles. None of us really think for ourselves. We simply go along with the rest of our tribe.

It’s not true. Left-wingers are open to more sources of information and less likely to automatically follow their side’s leaders. Compared to the Democratic Party, the Republican Party is a cult.

Here’s an example. In 2013, a poll showed that 38% of Democrats supported bombing Syria because of the government’s use of chemical weapons. So did 22% of Republicans.

Last year, when asked the same question, the same poll showed 37% of Democrats still supported bombing Syria. But, remarkably, 86% of Republicans did!

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You might say, well, 64% of Republicans must have changed their minds over the course of four years because the situation in Syria changed. Maybe Democrats were too stupid or ignorant to recognize how different Syria 2017 was from Syria 2013. 

You could say that, but, from the Republican perspective, the real difference between 2013 and 2017 was which tribe occupied the White House and which position was being pushed by Fox News.

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.

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.