distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views


March 01, 2017

Worth Noting

During the campaign, I noted that the GOP was having a difficult time repudiating Trump because he in fact was saying nothing that had not been a mainline Republican position for decades. The question was one of style, not substance—although we’re getting a lesson now in how they really aren’t that different.  Last night’s unofficial state of the union address represents all the evidence needed to make that claim.  It should be noted that he said nothing he had not said before.  The only difference was in his tone and the manner of phrasing.

Now, if you agree with the programmatic direction of the GOP, then you may find yourself quite pleased with the president’s performance last night. But then you will have to eventually come to terms with the harm that direction is likely to produce within the country and among our allies, not to mention the world in general.

He doubled down on his “Radical Islamic Terrorist” rhetoric, despite having been counciled by his new national security advisor to stop using that term, as it serves only to alienate allies and potential allies.  That, therefore, had to be intentional, because clearly he didn’t write that speech.  Nothing new with that, few presidents do write their own, but they all have final say in what is in them.

His use of the widow of the SEAL killed in Yemen is one of the more cynical moves I’ve seen from a public official. That she should receive sympathy is beyond question. That her husband did his duty is clear.  That he used her tears in public to justify a boneheaded action, asserting that we got important and substantial intelligence as a result despite initial reports that we got nothing from it other than a lot of bodies on the ground, is pretty low.  Yemen is going to be Trump’s Fast and Furious (which, despite being a mess, nevertheless produced 34 indictments of drug dealers and gun runners) and he’s trying his best right now to draw the venom and rewrite the reality.

On its face, this speech resembles what we might have expected from Rubio or Cruz, a reasonable-sounding assemblage of soundbites to float in coming weeks as talking points for policy wonks that seem mainstream Republican.

Fine. Let’s look at that.

His cabinet appointees draw a different picture than what people may be expecting.  Betsy De Vos is there to destroy the Department of Education.  She’s all about vouchers and so-called “school choice.”  What could be wrong with that?  Nothing, if that’s what it really is. But advancing private companies to manage what should be a public trust at the expense of the public institutions already in place is in the long run a reduction of choice, because eventually they will all fall into similar business models designed to turn out “product” rather than educated citizens.  This is a viable system only if you have a healthy public education system to set standards and hold the private institutions accountable to those standards.  If you eliminate the source of the standard then you initiate a rush to the bottom and the gradual homogenization of education into two camps—the one for the Haves and the one for the Have Nots, with predictable results.

Scott Pruitt is there to disassemble the EPA.  The horror stories about the mismanagement in the EPA and its subsequent impact are the stuff of legend.  Of course, with something this large and complex, people will run afoul of the rules, but to assert that the mission of the EPA is in any way unnecessary is a thread that has run through the GOP for decades.  The utterly pointless and cynical removal by executive order over coal waste dumping in streams is representative.  Coal as an industry is dying, at least as it has been practiced till now.  The jobs lost have not disappeared because of environmental regulations—that’s just distracting rhetoric— but because we’re in a market that has seen natural gas shove coal aside massively.  With the increase in sustainable and renewable energy technologies, coal is about to be marginalized even more.  Basically, the coal industry that remains is in charge of a growing share of a shrinking market. But like parasites, they will suck the last juices of the decaying corpse of the industry if given a chance, and removing such regulations has the single effect of adding a few paltry dollars to the dividends they pay themselves.  In the meantime, we dump on people who have to live in the resultant mess and will, once the EPA is gone, have almost no recourse to protect themselves.

Rex Tillerson is there to reverse the sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Lest anyone think this is sort of okay, let’s review.  Putin oversaw a massive development of oil. The payoff could be huge, both for himself and his country.  However, the pipelines run mostly through Ukraine, and Ukraine was levying a rather substantial use fee on the oil passing through.  Putin wanted them to stop doing that.  Things were getting tense.  Money was at stake.  Putin had no moral or legal grounds on which to stand, though.  Then Ukraine made noises about joining NATO.  That would have made anything Putin did even riskier and constrain his ability to act further.  So he invaded.  All the excuses were made about traditional rights of access to Sebastopol and the rights of Russian citizens living in Ukraine, etc etc, and it is true, historically Russia will do just about anything to maintain open access to the Crimea and the warm water port there, but this also removed both the NATO threat and the tax on his pipelines, at Ukraine’s expense.  And lest the point is still lost, Exxon and Trump both have a financial stake in those Russian oil fields and the potential pay-out will be enormous.  That’s why Tillerson is there, to line pockets.

We could go down the list.  This is all good, solid Republican programming.  If it hurts a corporation it is bad.  If some actual people get hurt, well, collateral damage, we didn’t really mean for them to get hurt.  Doing something for anyone making less than mid six-figures?  Not on the table.

This is nothing new.  The argument has been made that restricting corporations with regulations, taxes, and requirements to abide by some standard of fiscal ethics has cost us jobs and that removing all those things will benefit everyone.  Why this is still believed I do not know, because we have now had  thirty years of proof that this is not what happens. Ever.

It may well be that the counterarguments and alternative programs offered by the Democrats will not remedy the problems we face, but we should all by now realize that we are being conned by the Republicans.

The people invested in believing otherwise have given us a con artist for a president.  If on occasion he manages to sound “presidential” it will serve to validate their belief that they voted for the right guy.  When things still don’t improve for them, what will they say?  Who will they blame?

But the con is party-wide.  That’s my point—he was not expunged during the campaign because he did not run on anything that wasn’t good, solid GOP dogma.  He just phrased it with less glitter and less rhetorical obfuscation.  The Republicans have been practicing for decades how to “reframe” their message so it doesn’t sound so bad and so they could appeal to people who are not racists or nationalists or who might actually believe in some kind of a safety net (but only for people who “deserve” it, however you define that), but really does have the net effect if not intent of being fundamentally inegalitarian, divisive, and culturally if not biologically racist.

The con is widespread.  The Democratic Party has more than a bit of this in it as well, though shifted to class distinctions rather than cultural.  It makes it difficult to see an effective difference from issue to issue, but only if you don’t pay attention.

Anyway, as polished and “moderate” as last night’s speech may have been, it’s basically the same old shabby, off-the-rack suit.  Putting a rose in the lapel doesn’t make it a tux.

 

March 20, 2016

Blue Collar Trump

Intellectuals on both sides of the political aisle are scratching their heads at the Trump phenomenon. They wonder how this guy, with all his crudity and his bluster and his fascistic diatribes, can possibly be slapping the pants off the favored sons of the GOP. Liberal, conservative, it doesn’t matter, they don’t get it.

Really?  Or do they just not want to admit they understand perfectly well?

Trump’s appeal is very simple.  He’s putting a kind of blue collar, working class rage right out in front, unadorned, just the way you might get it at any dinner table conversation in a stressed working class household where the most serious piece of reading done is either World News or Car and Driver.  Where the talking heads on Meet The Press are met with derision and complete incomprehension.  He has pitched his language, according to one recent analysis, to a sixth grade or lower level because he knows that is the functional intelligence of the people he’s channeling.

Yes, I said channeling.  He is the embodiment of a feedback machine.  He’s taking in the inarticulate anger of people who feel helpless but who intuit that they’re being shafted and projecting it right back out at them at the same intellectual level.

The thing that sets him apart from Cruz and even Rubio is not that he gets this and they don’t, but that he knows he can make more bank by expressing it without trying to couch it in pseudo-politic, semi-intellectual, quasi-philosophical terms.  He has not said one thing that the others haven’t also said over the last several years, but they do it in terms that hide the scrapyard origins of the sentiment and try to make it appeal to people who wish to believe of themselves that they have a higher grasp of these matters.  The reason so much of their tactic is now failing is that they’ve been trying to play bar band music as though it were a sonata in three parts, and it doesn’t ring true enough in comparison with a guy who knows to stick to three chords and one beat.

Trump is also feeding on a kind of mythic American tough guy attitude that sees the solution to every problem to be corporal—a smack in the jaw, a kick in the groin, a death threat.  When the mind has been taxed to its limit by arguments about refugees, globalization, currency exchange manipulations, multilateral negotiations, regressive tax structures, and ethnic diversity, the impulse is to just throw them all out, slam the door shut, and kick the shit out of anyone with more than a high school education.

And because we as a people rarely look past the surface of things, when confronted with problems that really are complex, we feel used, insulted, talked down to, and effectively sidelined by language and concepts we were never introduced to at home or in school.  We are ignorant but have been told for decades that we have some kind of national character and virtue which doesn’t require us to learn anything in order to know what to do.

But we don’t.  So we get angry and frustrated.  Then someone like Trump comes along and validates our anger and plays on our ignorance and tell us he knows what to do to make us feel better.

He’s a walking, talking symbol of the anti-intellectualism we’ve been suffering and enduring since…well, in this cycle since McCarthy showed politicians how to gain support by putting down smart people.

It should surprise no one that he is popular with that kind of crowd.  The question is, how large is that crowd?

We’d better hope they aren’t even close to a majority.

But if they are, then that says everything we need to know about how our educational system has failed this country.  And with that failure, how our economic systems are failing us.  And with that failure, how our value systems are next to worthless.

One last thing which puzzles some folks.  The question rises how evangelical christians find nothing to criticize in the man, how he can get endorsements from the likes of Billy Graham Jr. and Jerry Falwell’s son.  How, with a centerfold model for a wife, he isn’t everything repugnant to them with all their moralistic blatherings about family values.  How they can get so exercised about Michelle Obama’s elegant bare arms and say virtually nothing about the yards of skin Melania Trump has shown in a wide variety of sexual poses.

What’s hard to understand?  Trump’s wife appears to be everything these so-called fundamentalists desire in a wife.  Young, sexy, and, above all, silent.  For them “modesty” only means nobody else gets to play with the goodies or look at the yummies. Michelle Obama offends by quite clearly owning her arms as well as the rest of her person and being a vocal, thinking, independent woman.  It ain’t, in other words, the bareness of her arms that bothers them but the fact that they are hers and she does what she wants with them.  Trump’s wife looks like an Old Testament Prophet’s wet dream.

Trump is not hard to understand, nor is his apparent popularity.  We just have to see, finally, what has been wrought in this country by people who have sold us a bill of goods for decades, all in the name of Amurica.

September 23, 2015

Bernie and the Clown Car

Scott Walker has dropped out of the presidential race. Given another month, all that will remain will be Kasich, Fiorino, and Trump.  Maybe Bush, but even he’s been resorting to hired audiences.  Maybe not Kasich, either, he seems not be doing well, but I’ll address that below.

I thought I’d seen the bottom of the barrel in national politics, but this election cycle is so far bottomless in terms of pointless rhetoric, jeremiads, lies, and crappy spectacle.  I would like to say something serious about the GOP but they haven’t given us anything serious since the season premiered. I felt a bit sorry for Governor Kasich, who in the Grand Debate kept trying to bring the discussion back to policy and serious issues.  Unfortunately, he was upstaged by the Trump Train that kept running over the other clowns tied to the tracks.

What can be said of a roster of candidates who seem so dedicated to being on the wrong side of so much?

When Jeb Bush proposed Margaret Thatcher for the face of the ten dollar bill, it was indicative of so many levels of disconnect from American reality that I believed it could not get worse.  (He called her Ronald Reagan’s “partner.”  This is so revealing of so much that it’s difficult to unpack in one sitting.  In truth, I doubt Jeb really understands just how meaningful that gaff was.)  At least Trump is doing what he’s doing on purpose.

It is difficult to see much merit in the choices.

Bobby Jindal wants to be white (or so it would seem—just look at the official portrait he commissioned recently) and denies that race is an issue.  At a time in this country of surging racial tension, I can only imagine what kind of a message he thinks he’s sending.  (Did you know he took his name from the Brady Bunch?  His real name is Piyush)  This is a new level of misrepresentation, but of what I’m not sure I want to say. On policy he’s demonstrated an anti-immigration bias, but that’s in the news a lot.  Of course he’s an antichoice candidate, he couldn’t run on the GOP ticket if he weren’t, but he also backs a Constitutional amendment for a balanced federal budget.  This issue has come up from time to time.  It’s stupid.  It shows a profound misunderstanding of how government funding works.  A state can have such a law and get by because in times of catastrophe a state can depend on the federal government, but only because the federal government is not prohibited from spending outside its budgetary limits.  Put this in the Constitution and see what happens next time a flood or hurricane produces a disaster that requires federal help.  More than that, though, it would produce serious impediments to our international agreements, treaties, foreign aide programs, and all those ships, planes, and soldiers we keep at the ready in case we need to invade another country or intervene between two other powers for the benefit of the world.  Now, Jindal is actually a Rhodes Scholar, which suggests he’s smart enough to know better—know better about a lot of things—so why doesn’t he seem to get this?  I think he does, which means he misrepresenting the issues, which means he doesn’t think the voters aere smart enough to see through this nonsense, but it also means he’s relying on a base that just might be that uninformed.  And,hell, he’s been given the Duck Dynasty Seal of Approval,so maybe that’s the case.  But its disingenuous.  He’s playing to his base at the expense of the truth, which is pretty much what passes for politics in this country, regardless of party, but it appears this year the GOP has distilled itself down to the true essence of nonsense.

Then there’s the usual roster of absurdities—christians are under attack and he wants laws passed to protect them; he’s opposed t gay marriage; another one who thinks corporations are people and pay too much in taxes, despite the growing evidence that corporations of a certain size are really vampires; and he’s a climate change denier.

Of course, he’s polling at 4%, along with Rand Paul, so why pick on him?

No reason other than he, in one person, exemplifies so much that is wrong with the GOP.

Chris Christie is a vindictive man who has nothing but a gruff manner to recommend him, which is wearing thin finally.

Ted Cruz, for all his anti-immigration rhetoric, has had his own oops moment with the question of nationality.  This wouldn’t be an issue if Cruz hadn’t stoked the fires of the Birthers during his tenure in the senate.  And then that gaff where he mixed up “Keynesian” with “Kenyan.”  Cruz also, along with several of the others, wants to make the Patriot Act permanent.  I’ve already stated how this is one of my biggest disappointments with Obama.  What I will not support is another president who can’t see his (or her) way past this kind of fearmongering and sees something “necessary” in violating the Constitution and our civil rights.

But again, Cruz isn’t polling very strongly.

Carly Fiorino is another of those baffling chimeras the GOP seems to love—a former CEO who cost her companies market share and recovered by firing thousands of people and somehow has made this a virtue.  A business “leader” who is actually rather bad at what she does—unless what she think it’s all about is filling her own coffers, then, yeah, she’s great.  But also, this affection they have for business people, as if that’s any kind of recommendation for high office.  Details aside, there is one fundamental difference between government and business that puts the lie to this idea.  Business, at its base, is about beating the competition.  Governance is about accommodating competing factions.  In practice, the two things couldn’t be more different.  So every time I hear a Ross Perot or a Mitt Romney blow smoke about how their business experience has made them fit for the presidency, I first want to ask How?  And then I realize that they have the wrong idea about what government is all about.  Probably they think that once they get in office they can do something about all those annoying rules and regulations that frustrated them in business and then make it easier for businesses to siphon off resources from the public trough.  Which is pretty much what’s been happening since St. Ronnie and the era of deregulation.  I think it’s fair to say we have subsequently found ourselves in deep doo-doo because of it.

No, if Carly does well with the GOP at all it’s because of another fundamental disconnect—they think because the mood of the country seems to favor a woman for president, any woman will do.  They made that mistake with Sarah Palin and that scotched their last chance of electing a serious politician to the White House.

And what can be said of Ben Carson, who seems to think African Americans didn’t have it so bad as slaves?  No, I don’t really think he believes that, but it fell out of his mouth, so I have to wonder at the filters he has in place or what really goes on in that skull of his.  Here is a doctor, at least putatively a man of science, who thinks evolution and the Big Bang are inventions of Satan.

Trump is doing well in all this because he is an honest clown.  So far I have not heard one thing he has said that did not come first from the mouth of another GOP face, although couched in more arcane and abstruse rhetoric. He has stripped away the Newspeak  and is simply reporting what, for many people, the GOP has come to stand for.  His misogyny is in line with the voting records and speeches made in opposition to women’s rights we’ve been listening to for decades now.  His immigration remarks reflect the growing nativist sentiment of the party.  His view on the economy is completely in the fold as are his views on taxation.  He is a vulgar, selfish ideologue shouting his message in catchy phrases not quite but almost at the level of what one could find on lavatory walls in truck stops across the country.  He is an outsized, tasteless, gauche demagogue who cannot be argued with by the others on the debate platform because they believe that stuff, too, they just don’t want to say it like that.

Trump is, if he keeps going, handing the next presidency to the Democrats.

The only solution for the GOP is to clean house of all the mean-spirited, small-minded, myopic idiocy that keeps shouting down reason and common sense and find a candidate that speaks to the issues as if he or she actually has a grasp.  I mentioned Kasich.  Not my favorite guy, but he is more reasonable than the rest.  But like past also-rans (I know, he hasn’t dropped out yet, but he can’t compete with the ones fighting for the steering wheel of the clown car, he will) the one GOP candidate that might save the Party and possibly begin to steer it back toward some semblance of rationality has no chance because the screaming hordes cheering on Trump and who would have preferred a Cruz won’t—possibly can’t—listen.  They have been told for decades that the evil Democrats will destroy their country and they just can’t seem to get past that.

And the Democrats?  Most of them seem to be stuck in the “let’s just keep the ship on course and worry about where we’re going once the storm is past” mode.  They will do less damage.  They might, if there is a thorough turn-over in congress, do something worthwhile.

Right now I’m backing Bernie.  I’m too cynical to believe he win the nomination—tricks and deals and smoke-filled rooms have a way with people like him—but so far he’s saying things I find more relevant to the world than any of the others.  And who knows, he could be this century’s Andrew Jackson in terms of a populist revolution.  (No, I do not think Bernie Sanders is in any way like Jackson, just in case any of you who read this might decide I’m making any kind of policy comparison—as far as I’m concerned, the only thing Jackson did came before he took office in terms of expanding the franchise.)

And, really, I think the business-as-usual crowd should be worried—Bernie got applause at Liberty University, of all places, even while maintaining his convictions on an issue which there, of all places, one would think would get him nothing but boos.

As for the GOP, I’m watching the retrenchment of stupidity and ignorance, all because they hate—-I can think of no more accurate word—hate President Obama.  I do not understand.  These are the people who are supposed, by virtue of their election to high office, be above that, but after seven years I can conclude nothing less.  They hate him.  Institutionally.  When he’s gone, I worry that they will do something with that hate other than shed it.  What will be their next target?

Well, there are already several they seem ready to go after.  Some they already have.

March 25, 2015

And So It Begins

Campaign season seems to begin earlier and earlier every time it comes around, but this time it’s starting up almost two years before?  Well, in many ways it began in 2008 and has continued almost nonstop since.

Ted Cruz has announced his candidacy.

I have two reactions to this.  The first is, perhaps predictably, “You have to be kidding.”  But the other is an unpleasant chill running through my entire nervous system.  I have come finally to embrace the maxim “Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.”  There are and will be fervent supporters for this demagogue and over the last couple of decades it has disturbed me how such thoughtless, anti-intellectual, entrenched ideologues seem to creep ever closer to the White House.  On the one hand, Romney lost because he really did not understand the mood of the nation.  On the other, those who mourn his loss have, at least in part, put enough of their kind in congress to effectively cripple national government.

I feel this would all be solved by the simple expedient of a 95% voter turnout.

No, I do not support any suggestion of mandatory voting.  Freedom does not thrive where choice is limited, and choosing not to vote is as viable a freedom as choosing to vote.

It would be less troubling if I believed that this was the case, that people were choosing not to vote.  I think for many people it’s just too much trouble, low down on the list of priorities behind shopping and yard work.  For many others, whether we wish to accept it or not, obstructions effectively dissuade voting.  And for still more, a deep pessimism that voting does no good keeps them from even knowing who the candidates are or what the issues may be.  Throw in a thick broth of lazy and there you have it.

So Ted Cruz may get and keep support from people who will find it easier to vote slogans than to actually find out something about their candidates.  He mouths the appropriate small-minded palaver about government overreach and too much regulation and the loss of American prestige.  Some people nod knowingly, as if they actually understand what he’s talking about.  If they did, they would know him for the political half-wit he seems to be.  He’s going to know how to get out the vote among those who think, when they do, in terms of feelings and disapprovals rather than by issues, so he may run a solid campaign by such metrics, but he would not know how to be a president if he won.

To wit, there may well be government overreach, but it’s not a single thing liable to a simple solution.  There is no cabal to which you can just say No and stop the problem.  And frankly, as with most things in America, one person’s overreach is another’s necessary program.  Likewise with regulation. Sure, there may well be—and assuredly are—too many inappropriate regulations imposed upon us by government.  Just as surely, my list will be different than your list, so exactly how do we come to some agreement about which should go and which should stay?  And, just to make matters worse, which government?  Municipal, county, state, or federal?  Not all regulations are from the same source.  This is why democracy, whether we like it or not, is an ongoing process, a conversation, requiring engagement by the citizenry.  It doesn’t run on its own.  We can’t just elect someone and then ignore everything afterward.

As for American prestige, that’s one of those noble-sounding but useless phrases that can mean anything.  The decline of American prestige?  In what way and for whom?  It’s not quantifiable, for one thing.  For another, it’s as personal as the other two points.  For some, having the world afraid of us is evidence of “ascendancy” and “prestige.”  Like we’re all of us school kids in the playground, throwing our machismo around to count coup.  For others, respect is what we want, and that’s something you earn by cooperation.  Working with other nations, more to help them with their problems than ours, but getting in return some help with ours, and then knowing when their problems are caused by us and being willing to do something about it.  Not sexy, but in the long run more effective.

I recall seeing one of the last big conferences Bush attended before he left office, and all these prominent leaders of other countries mounting the stage, many of them putatively allies, and it was obvious that none of them respected Bush.  He was all but snubbed.  They saw him as a rube.  A clueless tool of his handlers.  Whether that assessment was correct is immaterial, that was the perception, and let’s be honest, in politics perception is more than half the game.

That is not the case with Obama.  Again, whether you like it or not.

Or perhaps people just don’t recognize respect when they see it.  Respect is a voluntary thing, not something you can demand, and certainly not something frightened people give.

Cruz is a demagogue.  He also doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything other than his career.  His people are perhaps aware of his deficits.  He made his announcement to run for office in a packed auditorium—filled with students who were required to be there.  Many of them may well have shown up for him anyway, but not all, and it was little more than some opportunistic stage craft.

What he represents, if in fact he represents anything other than himself, is a laundry list of regressive ideas that are everything we’ve come to expect from reactionary coalitions of malcontents who don’t like the idea that America has to be shared with people they don’t like.  That he is one of the poster boys for a Tea Party that still won’t let go the idea that Obama is not a citizen is profoundly ironic.

To be clear, the charges that Cruz is ineligible to run for the presidency are as groundless as they were for Obama.  His mother was born in Wilmington, Delaware.  End of argument.  He’s a “natural born” American.

Still, that some people are throwing the charge at him already carries a small schadenfreude about it.

As far as I know, no one in recent memory who began their active campaign this early has made it through the primaries.  I could be wrong about that, but I think it’s so.  Which means he’s being poorly advised OR this is part of a larger Party strategy to set him up to take all the flack while another candidate, more moderate, more “electable” is positioned for a later announcement closer to time.  If so, I have to wonder if Cruz knows.

It’s going to be an interesting season.

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