Thursday, August 17, 2017

Trump's Presidency: Predictable Train Wreck

Josh Marshall sums up this completely predictable train wreck of a Presidency on Talking Points Memo.

Everything we are seeing stems almost inevitably from the decisions the country made, collectively, last November. We elected a President driven by white racial grievance. That is the fulcrum and driving force of his politics. It’s no surprise that a big outbreak of white supremacist violence would lead us to a moment like this. We also elected a President who is an abuser and a predator. I’ve analogized him before to an abusive man in an abused household – only his house is now the country, now with all the cumulative exhaustion, warped perceptions and damage that are the common lot of people living with and trapped with violent predators, addicts or people with certain profound mental illnesses.

As things get worse, as more people turn against him, Trump gets more wild and unbridled. He lashes out more aggressively. There’s no kill switch on this escalating aggression. It only builds. This morning he’s tearing into senators who’ve dared to criticize him and essentially declared war on one who is key to preserving the GOP’s senate majority next year. He compensates for ebbing support by redoubled aggression. It’s a self-reinforcing, self-accelerating cycle. Vicious people can be helpful in a cynical way. But vicious and self-destructive people are dangerous to everyone around them.

Trump will clearly, happily destroy the GOP if he feels the party has proven disloyal to him. Given what’s happened, it would be richly deserved. But Trump’s greatest powers are not as head of the GOP but as head of state of the country. He would happily destroy the country too to sate his own anguished feelings of betrayal. Sound hyperbolic? Why would the pattern be any different written on so large a canvass?

When I say I’m not surprised, I don’t say this pretending to any great insight. Lots of people aren’t surprised. Millions of people aren’t surprised. The best analogy I can think of is if you build the bomb and attach the fuse and light the fuse, the bomb will go off. The concussion is still loud and jarring. But the bomb was going to go off. That was inevitable when the bomb was built and the fuse lit.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Robert E. Lee: Setting the Historical Record Straight

Josh Marshall, who earned a PhD in history before becoming a journalist, tells the real story on Robert E. Lee's place in American history on Talking Points Memo.

What is Robert E. Lee known for? This is what I mean by the margins of the debate. Lee is known for one thing: being the key military leader in a violent rebellion against the United States and leading that rebellion to protect slavery. That’s it. Absent his decision to participate in the rebellion he’d be all but unknown to history. He outlived the war by only five years. There’s simply no positive side of the ledger to make it a tough call. The only logic to honoring Lee is to honor treason and treason in the worst possible cause.

Even this though leaves the full squalidness of Lee’s legacy not quite told. There is the Lee of the Civil War and then the mythic Lee of later decades. Today the battle over Lee’s legacy is mainly played out over the various statues depicting Lee which still stand across the South. The notional focus of this weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville was a protest over plans to remove a Lee statue. But those statues don’t date to the Civil War or the years just after the Civil War. In most cases, they date to decades later.

The historical chronology is important to understand. Reconstruction is generally dated from 1865 to 1877 when the federal government withdrew federal troops and allowed the restoration of so-called ‘home rule’ in the South. But black political power and biracial political coalitions didn’t disappear overnight. Though the sheet anchor protecting black citizenship was withdrawn, it took the better part of a generation for what we now recognize as the Jim Crow system to become firmly entrenched throughout the South. To note but one example, the judicial cornerstone of Jim Crow, ‘separate but equal’, only became the law of the land with Plessy v Ferguson in 1896.

The statuary which is only beginning to come down in our day dates largely from this era and constituted a celebration and affirmation of this victory. Not the victory of the Civil War, which was of course a defeat, but the sectional victory to define the post-war settlement.

Consider some dates: Lee Circle in New Orleans, 1884; Lee Statue on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia, 1890; Robert E. Lee Monument (Marianna, Arkansas), 1910; the Robert Edward Lee sculpture in Emancipation Park, Charlottesville, Virginia, commissioned 1917, erected 1924. All of these statues date not from the Civil War Era but from the decades of the establishment of Jim Crow, to celebrate the South’s success establishing an apartheid system on the ruins of the Antebellum slave South. A statue of Lee in uniform, mounted on a horse in a southern town square has only ever had one meaning: white supremacy. These statues didn’t come to be associated with racism and Jim Crow only after the Civil War had receded into memory. They were created, from the start, to mark and celebrate the foundations of Jim Crow, uncontested white rule. More mythically, but to the same end, they were built to glorify a vision of the South in which her black citizens had no place.

It has always been a canard to claim that anyone is banishing history with these changes. But public memory isn’t simply history. It is a public recitation, often written onto the landscape, about what we revere and what we regret about who we are and what we come from. None of this is to say that Lee’s battles aren’t of interest. Nor is it to say what Lee was like as a private person.  But neither is why he is celebrated in cast metal statuary across the South. There’s one reason. And by any measure for us today it is a bad reason. It is not even close.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

GOP Health Care Train Wreck

Ezra Klein details the cynicism and dishonesty revealed by the Republican health care debate on

The health care debate has revealed a political system unmoored and in crisis.

Part of it is the recklessness of the legislation under consideration. Putting all policy arguments aside, no one — including congressional Republicans — believes these bills to be carefully drafted. House Republicans passed the American Health Care Act before seeing a final Congressional Budget Office score — they didn’t want to know what it did, and they didn’t want anyone else to know either. Senate Republicans moved to debate their bill on the floor before they knew what their bill was.

Republicans are making life-or-death policy for millions of Americans with less care, consideration, and planning than most households put into purchasing a dishwasher.

But the deeper problem — the one that will continue to corrode the system long after this debate resolves — is the role that deception has played throughout the process.

This has been a policymaking process built, from the beginning, atop lies. Lies about what the bills do and don’t do. Lies about what is wrong with Obamacare and lies about what the GOP’s legislation would do to fix it. Lies about what Republicans are trying to achieve and lies about which problems they seek to solve.

This isn’t just a moral offense, though it is that. It is a profound challenge to the policymaking process.

For the most part, the political system — from voting to journalism to policymaking to congressional debate to interest group organizing — is built around the idea that the signals sent by the central players are meaningful, even if the rhetoric is often slippery. That’s how policymakers coordinate with each other. That’s why journalists report what politicians say in speeches. That is why activists organize based on what policymakers propose. That’s why voters tune in to presidential debates and party conventions.

This is not to be naive. Politicians fib, prevaricate, misdirect. They exaggerate and make untenable promises, like Mitt Romney’s mathematically impossible vow to make deep, deep cuts to tax rates without losing a dollar in revenue or raising the burden on the middle class, or Barack Obama’s insistence that the Affordable Care Act would not cancel a single American’s health insurance plan.

Still, the lying tends to be marginal, not central. If you listened to Romney, you would conclude that he wanted to cut taxes; if you listened to Obama, you would conclude that he wanted a new program to expand health insurance coverage. Politicians can typically be counted on to try to fulfill their campaign promises. They tend to try to do what they said they would do, if only to signal to their allies how to fall in line, and to ensure their voters know which side they’re on.

From day one, the argument all Republicans could agree on was that their replacement bill was needed because Obamacare’s individual markets were collapsing — too few young and healthy people were buying insurance, and a fix was needed. This was false as a broad claim but true in some markets.

But now Senate Republicans look to be ending their process with a bill that mainly repeals the individual mandate, and thus sends far more markets into collapse. And so the one vaguely real problem they identified and repeatedly promised to solve they are now making much, much, much worse.

This is not normal. It is crazy-making. It’s a debate where words have no meaning, promises have no value, noise carries no signal. A functional policymaking process cannot survive in this environment for long.

For years, the senators I interview on both sides of the aisle have privately expressed their despair, their disappointment, their humiliation. Few legislators today take pride in their work or believe the era in which they serve will be remembered with admiration and honor. In these discussions, I always ask the same questions. Why not buck leadership? Why not act in the way you think is honorable, if you think the institution is rotting around you? Why not band together with your similarly angry colleagues and refuse to let anything pass unless changes are made?

I have never gotten a good answer.

Skepticism is healthy in politics. But this era requires more than skepticism. This is a total collapse of the credibility of all the key policymakers in the American government. Our political system is built on the assumption that words have some meaning, that the statements policymakers make have some rough correlation to the actions they will take. But here, in the era of bullshit politics, they don’t. If this becomes the new normal in policymaking, it will be disastrous.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Trump-Russia Relationship Explained

Sean Iling of explains the roots of the relationship between Donald Trump and Russia through the eyes of Seva Gunitsky, a politics professor at the University of Toronto.

Gunitsky, who was raised in Russia, has followed the evolving relationship between Donald Trump and Russia for more than a decade. He says the prevailing narrative about Putin interfering in the American election in order to undermine democracy is wildly overstated.

Putin is happy to sow confusion and distrust in America’s system, of course, but to assume that’s the basis of this operation is to overlook a much simpler motive: money.

Gunitsky: "Again, this doesn't start with the election; it starts with Russian oligarch money pouring into Trump's real estate and casino businesses. Many of them Trump has been working with for years, well before he developed any serious political ambitions. And we’re not talking about small change here; we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. Possibly even enough to keep Trump out of another bankruptcy."

"We know because they’ve told us. We can talk about specific cases in a minute, but Donald Trump Jr. has already admitted the importance of Russian money to their business ventures. He said publicly in 2008 that "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." It doesn’t get much clearer than that."

"I think you're absolutely right that he (Trump) has no strong ideological commitments. We've seen that painfully over and over during the last few months. But if his financial interests are tied up with Russian oligarchs, who in turn are tied up with the Kremlin and thus have parallel interests, then Trump’s “consistency” (on Russia and Putin) becomes much more explainable."

"And if we emphasize this financial angle a bit more, it also makes a lot of sense that he would not want to release his tax returns. Because that would expose just how deeply embedded he is with Russian money."

"I think the idea of parallel interest is key here, that the Russian intelligence service, once they saw what Trump was doing, quickly latched on in order to push their own agenda, which was very similar to the Russian oligarchy agenda. And it's hard to even separate the two because, as you probably know, in Russia the distinction between political power and economic power is very fuzzy."

"There’s a tendency here, in part because of our Cold War inertia, to see Putin as this creature with his tentacles in every part of the country. And I think that may be overstating the case just a bit. He's been in power for 17 years, the people who support him are starting to itch a little bit, and he has to keep them happy. They're not happy about sanctions; they're not happy about restrictions on their financial dealings."

"If they have financial leverage over Trump, and they clearly do, then why wouldn’t they want him to become president of the United States?"