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

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

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

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

John Cassidy, The New Yorker:

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

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

David Cole, The New York Review of Books:

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

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

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

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

As of 3:40 p.m. today

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

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

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

96 Republicans are neutral or support the President’s action

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

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

If There Was Any Doubt

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

Here’s the interesting thing:

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

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

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

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

You would be wrong:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Bubble Is Bigger and More Porous Than Theirs

The Columbia Journalism Review is a magazine for professional journalists. It’s been published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism since 1961. Like it or not, it’s a relatively reliable source of information.

So it was interesting to read about a study they conducted. They analyzed “over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day”. They “analyzed hyperlinking patterns, social media sharing patterns on Facebook and Twitter, and topic and language patterns in the content of the 1.25 million stories, published by 25,000 sources over the course of the election”. They answered questions like: “If a person shares a link from Breitbart, is he or she more likely to share a link from Fox News or from The New York Times?”

This is what they found:

… a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.

While concerns about political and media polarization online are longstanding, our study suggests that polarization was asymmetric. Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season (my emphasis).

Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of opposing media were also a central theme of right-wing media. Rather than “fake news” in the sense of wholly fabricated falsities, many of the most-shared stories can more accurately be understood as disinformation: the purposeful construction of true or partly true bits of information into a message that is, at its core, misleading. Over the course of the election, this turned the right-wing media system into an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it.

In other words, there are bubbles and there are bubbles. As the Republican Party has moved further and further to the right, Republican orthodoxy has increasingly conflicted with reality. Since journalism at its best tends to reflect reality, fewer “conservatives” have been willing to get news and commentary from the most professional sources. This explains the growing popularity of right-wing propaganda sites like Fox News. They’re a comforting alternative to what the right began calling the “mainstream” or “lamestream” media. 

This means that a sizable minority of Americans are now convinced that the most objective sources of news are unreliable. The result is that right-wing politicians can get away with murder. Their supporters are immune to the truth. Meanwhile, liberal or progressive politicians don’t get the credit they sometimes deserve and those of us who pay attention to the traditional media are left wondering how so many people on the right can be so out of touch. 

I’m not saying that newspapers like The Washington Post and programs like CBS Evening News always get it right. Hardly. But the people who work at places like that at least try to get it right. They aren’t committed to supporting one political party at all costs. The result is that if you get your news and commentary from a variety of respected sources, you’ll probably have a fairly good grasp of what’s going on in America. You’ll realize that the Affordable Care Act hasn’t been a “disaster”, for example, and that the American economy is in much better shape than when President Obama took office.

Some will say that we all live in bubbles and we’re all equally biased. It’s easy to express that kind of cynicism, but it’s not born out by the evidence. As the study says, “pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets”, while “pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets”. There’s a reason that more than 99% of the major newspapers in the United States, hundreds of them, even papers that always endorse Republican candidates, endorsed the Democrat for President, not the Republican. The people who run newspapers and write editorials get their news from a variety of credible sources that at least try to be objective. 

The good news is that most Americans are still open to journalism that does that. The bad news is that millions of right-wingers, including some with too much power, aren’t. I don’t know how to fix this problem. I don’t think anyone does. Here, for instance, is the conclusion of the Columbia Journalism Review article:

Rebuilding a basis on which Americans can form a shared belief about what is going on is a precondition of democracy, and the most important task confronting the press going forward. Our data strongly suggest that most Americans … continue to pay attention to traditional media, following professional journalistic practices, and cross-reference what they read on partisan sites with what they read on mass media sites.

To accomplish this, traditional media needs to reorient … by recognizing that it is operating in a propaganda and disinformation-rich environment.

And then what? Knowledge of the situation is a necessary first step, but what comes next? There will always be a market for fantasy. I suppose all we can do is stand up for reality.

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“You’re On Your Own”

Every now and then, you might find yourself wondering “What’s the deal with these people?” Why are four Republican Congressmen sponsoring a bill that would abolish the Environmental Protection Agency? Why does the President think financial advisers should be free to give advice that favors themselves, not their clients? Why did a wealthy relative of mine strongly resent paying taxes for public schools?

Paul Waldman, writing in The Washington Post, nicely explains the guiding principle behind actions and attitudes like these:

President [D]rump is not an ideologue — not because he’s open-minded, but because he has little in the way of particular beliefs about policy. He does, however, have impulses, inclinations and prejudices. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), on the other hand, is an ideologue, as are many if not most of his compatriots in Congress.

Put that Congress and this White House together, and you get a Republican government with a clear and coherent ideology, one you can sum up in a short declarative statement:

You’re on your own.

This is the driving principle behind nearly everything the Republicans are trying to do in domestic affairs…

He then offers examples. They make very interesting reading if you’ve been trying to understand how people like Drump and Ryan manage to consistently choose the wrong side of every issue.

Fuck Him. He’s Still a Con Man.

Donald Drump gave a long speech last night that made some people think he’s not as bad as they thought. This has happened before. If you think otherwise, that he’s suddenly become “presidential” rather than “unpresidented”, read these: 

Michael Grunwald, “Salesman-in-Chief”, Politico

Brian Beutler, “The Worst Performance of [Drump’s] Presidency Now Belongs to the Press Corps”, The New Republic

Greg Sargent, “The Pundits Are Wrong. [Drump’s] Handling of the Ryan Owens Affair Was Contemptibly Cynical”, The Washington Post

Alex Pareene, “You Cretins Are Going To Get Thousands of People Killed”, The Concourse

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that there was a record high of 63.5 degrees in Antarctica last year. 

Do Your Damn Job!

Ezra Klein of Vox published an important article this week. It’s called “How To Stop An Autocracy” and includes one of those very long subtitles: 

The danger isn’t that T___ will build an autocracy. It’s that congressional Republicans will let him.

Klein begins with a surprising statement:

There is nothing about the T___ administration that should threaten America’s system of government.

Why? Because the men who wrote the U.S. Constitution didn’t want anyone to have too much power:  

The Founding Fathers were realistic about the presence and popularity of demagogues. The tendency of political systems to slip into autocracy weighed heavily on their minds. That power corrupts, and that power can be leveraged to amass more power, was a familiar idea. The political system the founders built is designed to withstand these pressures… The founders feared charismatic populists, they worried over would-be monarchs, and so they designed a system of government meant to frustrate them.

That’s the system we all learn about in school called “checks and balances”.

So why, then, are we surrounded by articles worrying over America’s descent into fascism or autocracy?

One reason, of course, is the President and the goons who carry out his orders or know how to push his buttons. At this point, that goes without saying.

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The more important reason, according to Klein, is that there is no evidence so far that Congress will do its job:

The president can do little without Congress’s express permission. He cannot raise money. He cannot declare war. He cannot even staff his government. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to compel T___ to release his tax returns, they could. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to impeach T___ unless he agreed to turn his assets over to a blind trust, they could. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to take T___’s power to choose who can and cannot enter the country, they could. As [David Frum] writes, “Congress can protect the American system from an overbearing president.” He just thinks they won’t.

It’s unlikely Congress will protect us from the T___ administration because of an historical development the Founders didn’t foresee: the overriding importance of political parties. Klein quotes an editorial from The Salt Lake City Tribune:

All that stuff about the constitutional separation of powers, each of the three branches of government keeping a wary eye on the other two, doesn’t mean very much if it is taken seriously only when Congress and the White House are held by different parties… 

The Constitution assumes that human nature will push officials of each branch of government to jealously guard their own powers, creating a balance that prevents anyone getting up to too much mischief. But when elected officials are less interested in protecting their institution than in toeing the party line, it all falls apart.

That’s why we need to keep the pressure on our Senators and Representatives as the months go by. Klein concludes: 

… it is in Congress members’ districts — at their town halls, in their offices, at their coffee shops — where this fight will be won or lost….The real test will be in 2018 — Democratic turnout tends to plummet in midterm elections, and overall turnout was historically low in 2014. The result, as political scientist Seth Masket writes, is that Republicans are more afraid of their primary voters than general election voters. Their behavior will change if and when that changes.

And that should change. It should change in 2018, and it should change thereafter. Congress is more powerful than the president. It comes first in the Constitution for a reason. The public should demand more of it, and care more who runs it….

In the end, it is as simple as this: The way to stop an autocracy is to have Congress do its damn job.

Speaking of which, our Congressman, Leonard Lance, is one of the 24 Republicans in the country who represent a district that Hillary Clinton won. That means he’s more vulnerable than most of his colleagues. He’s also a perfect example of what’s wrong with Congress. From Wikipedia:

In the 2016 presidential election, Lance … was a strong supporter of [T___], for which he was criticized by the editorial board of The Newark Star-Ledger for becoming part of T___’s “cancer” in the GOP. The editors lamented that Lance was one of the GOP’s “saddest cases”, undergoing a transformation from principled environmentalist and man of integrity to being a toe-the-line party regular.[8] Lance’s 7th district was gerrymandered in 2011 to benefit the GOP… 

Yet he looks like such a nice guy. He could be one of your favorite teachers from high school.

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Today, Rep. Lance announced his first town hall of 2016. Only residents of New Jersey’s 7th congressional district will be admitted. I hope he’s ready for some quality feedback.

PS – As I was about to publish this, I saw that the Republican who heads the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who spent millions of tax dollars “investigating” the Benghazi incident, and who is one of the subjects of Klein’s excellent article (worth reading in full), is holding a town hall in his Utah district tonight. I hope he was ready for some quality feedback too: 

13-Second “Do Your Job!” Video Direct from Utah