Avoiding Individual-1 for the Most Part

I’ve mostly blogged about politics since the beginning of the crisis (you know, the crisis known as “Individual-1”). Other topics haven’t seemed worth writing about.

But, even though Individual-1 is still happening, I haven’t posted anything lately. That’s because, two months ago, I took a break from American politics. At the end of June, I stopped reading the digital front pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times and the U.S. edition of The Guardian. I also stopped looking at New York Magazine‘s “Daily Intelligencer” and Twitter. I was sick of my mind being polluted by the latest Individual-1 “news”. 

Instead, I began looking at international or “world” news. (Even in the U.S., we’re part of the world, right?) I’m told my mood improved, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, even though some American news made it through. For instance, The Guardian puts selected American stories on their international page. And any other contact, direct or indirect, with the rest of humanity meant that I might be exposed to the latest turmoil and trouble.

Helped along by last week’s positive legal developments, I started looking at U.S. news again. I didn’t immerse myself in it as much as before, but this wasn’t a great idea. Even limited exposure has been depressing. This means I probably won’t be writing much until the November election — an event on which hope for America’s redemption rests.

Before going, however, I’ll mention a few articles I’ve come across that are worth reading.

First, philosophy professor Bryan Van Norden explains why people have a right to speak, but not necessarily to be heard. He argues that some people aren’t entitled to an audience:

Access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole. There is a clear line between censoring someone and refusing to provide them with institutional resources for disseminating their ideas. 

In other words, outlawing speech is a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean all opinions are equal or deserve equal time in the “marketplace of ideas”. Otherwise, (quoting the philosopher Herbert Marcuse) “the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood”. And it becomes far easier to produce a political crisis like Individual-1.

On a related topic, a former Prime Minister of Australia writes about “the cancer eating the heart of Australian democracy”. The cancer he’s referring to is Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire “operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view”. Murdoch and his outlets like Fox News are one big reason why politics is so screwed up in the U.S. (Individual-1), the United Kingdom (Brexit) and Australia (five prime ministers in five years). Contrast that with politics in two other English-speaking nations, Canada and New Zealand. Their politics is a much more rational affair. Is it a coincidence that Murdoch doesn’t propagandize in either of those countries?

This week, James Fallows pointed out that it would only take one or two Republican senators to “serve as a check on [Individual-1’s] excesses”. As of now, the Republicans have a mere one-vote margin in the Senate. They will be ahead 51 to 49 after the late Senator McCain is replaced. As Fallows says:

Every [Republican] swore an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, not simply their own careerist comfort. And not a one of them, yet, has been willing to risk comfort, career, or fund-raising to defend the constitutional check-and-balance prerogatives of their legislative branch.

On a related topic, Brian Beutler explains why there is a natural alliance between Individual-1 and Vladimir Putin (who, of course, is no longer a Communist):

For the white nationalists in [the Republican] coalition [including the president himself], Putin seeks a global alliance of white nationalist parties, and is meddling in elections world wide to help those parties gain political power. But … even more garden variety conservatives see their interests and Putin’s coming into alignment. Putin is deeply hostile to LGBT people, and frames his hostility in religious terms. The Russian economy is built on a broken foundation of fossil fuel extraction. American conservatives aren’t killing journalists and … opposition leaders, but they are hostile to journalism and democracy, and increasingly comfortable with both propaganda and exercising power through minority rule…. Russia’s political identity is shaped by its aggrievement over the crumbling of its once-vast empire. The American right is similarly revanchist—not over lost territory, but lost demographic dominance and privilege.

For now, the GOP’s congressional leaders remain nominally committed to the western alliance, and to treating Russia as an adversary. But they will not check [the president] as he advances the opposite view. Elite conservative opinion is already shifting on the Russia question, and should Trump ever convince a majority of Republican voters that he’s right about Russia, the congressional leadership will follow suit. Putin seems to grasp that, too. What we’re seeing, across several different plot lines, is that in many ways Moscow understood Republicans better than Republicans understand themselves. 

But let’s conclude with some good news. In an interview with The Atlantic, Senator Elizabeth Warren discusses “two aggressive proposals for overhauling American business”, i.e. making capitalism work the way it’s supposed to:

One [of her proposals] is the Accountable Capitalism Act, which would require the largest corporations to allow workers to choose 40 percent of their board seats. [This] is meant to provide an antidote to short-term thinking in the biggest businesses—and to short-circuit the ease with which CEOs make decisions that enrich themselves at the expense of workers and the underlying health of their firm. A similar system exists in Germany, and it goes by the name “codetermination.”

A second set of proposals is what Warren calls the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act. Warren has called for a frontal assault on lobbying, including a lifetime prohibition that would prevent federal officeholders (including the president, members of Congress, and Cabinet secretaries) from ever becoming paid influence peddlers. Her argument is that lobbying undermines the functioning of markets, by permitting corporations to exert outsize control over the regulatory state and use government to squash competitors.

It’s also good news that there are only sixty-nine days until the midterm election. On November 6th, we can quicken the demise of the Republican Party. We should make the most of the opportunity.

The New York Times Receives a Little Feedback

I’ve still got a digital subscription to The New York Times but am limiting myself to the International section, the Arts section and Paul Krugman’s column. Our president is in England, so the International section wasn’t safe today. 

The Times headline says: 

Trump, on His Best Behavior, Heaps Praise on May as ‘Tough’ and ‘Capable’

I was moved to submit the following comment (with inflation, it might be worth two cents to somebody):

“Trump on his best behavior” suggests the White House Press Office is writing headlines for The Times. One British paper, The Guardian, describes Trump’s presence as “the visit from hell” and refers to “Trump’s oily and obnoxious personality” and “towering lies”.

Regarding today’s press conference with Prime Minister Theresa May, a British journalist writes:

Then he went into overdrive. Sure, Boris Johnson would make a great prime minister. Why not? He was a great guy who had said some nice things about him. May looked as if she might throw up at that point. It was a while since a prime minister had been publicly insulted in her own back garden. Even when Trump went out of his way to praise her – “She’s doing a great job. The greatest job” – he somehow managed to sound patronising and condescending.

No, he wouldn’t take a question from CNN because they were more fake reporting. But, hell, he knew about nukes because his uncle had been a professor of nukes. He was now full-on delusional, repeating lies about events and meetings that had never happened. A masterclass in uncontrolled narcissism made orange flesh.

Perhaps the reference to the president’s “best behavior” was a moment of sarcasm? I doubt it, because the American establishment continues to treat this monster with undeserved respect.

Mussolini and Hitler Were Both Elected

In the Italian election of 1924, Benito Mussolini’s National List, a coalition of fascists and nationalists, won 65% of the vote. Mussolini immediately became Prime Minister. He then gradually took total control of the government. In 1926, after a 15-year old boy tried to assassinate him, Mussolini banned all non-fascist political parties. Mussolini’s National List was dissolved, since it was no longer needed. It had no competition. Italy wouldn’t hold another multi-party election until 1946.

In the German presidential election of 1932, Adolph Hitler lost to the incumbent, Paul von Hindenburg. In a parliamentary election a few months later, Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party won the most seats. With the Nazis and other far-right parties having a majority in parliament, von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Germany’s Chancellor. Before Hitler, the Chancellor was a relatively weak position. Hitler immediately began accumulating power. The Reichstag fire in February 1933 contributed to Hitler receiving the authority to make laws on his own, without involving parliament. In 1934, Hindenburg died and Hitler assumed total control of the government.

In the American presidential election of 2016, Donald Trump received fewer votes than his opponent but became president anyway. Since then, he has attacked the press, the Department of Justice and the FBI. He has threatened to end an investigation into his campaign’s relationship with Russia. He has expressed his admiration for foreign dictators and continues to claim that millions of people voted illegally in 2016. He has not done anything to investigate or inhibit Russian interference in the next election. He has ignored the law by continuing to profit from his personal business. His latest offense was to take thousands of children from their parents and lock them up with no plan to reunite them. The Republican-controlled Congress, supposedly an equal branch of the government, has done nothing at all to stop him.

We take comfort in the fact that the president is incompetent. He doesn’t seem to have the skills necessary to obliterate a democracy and the rule of law like Mussolini and Hitler did. But what if there is a terrorist attack before November? Or an assassination attempt? Would the president declare a national emergency and delay the election? Would the Republican Congress do anything, considering that they’ve done nothing to stop him so far? Would Fox News finally draw the line?

I’ve avoided the news for the past four days. Maybe things have taken a major turn for the better. If so, nobody has told me. Assuming things have continued on their downward slide, we may have a long way to go before we hit bottom.

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.