Tag Archives: Fortress America

Most important Book You’re Not Going to Read This Year

I have just finished reading Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America, edited by Cass Sunstein. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University where he founded its Program on Behavioral Economics. He is the author of, among many others, Impeachment, A Citizen’s Guide, which you are also not going to read, but should.

The contributors of the essays in this stunning book are mostly distinguished law professors from Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Columbia, NYU and Duke. These people know whereof they speak.

And speak they do, sometimes a bit turgidly as law professors are wont to do, but also brilliantly and incisively addressing the sources of risk that the United States could lose its hold on democracy. It’s important to understand that this is not an anti-Trump screed, although, as you might expect, Trump’s conduct as president figures prominently in many of the essays. The reason is that his behavior is in the classical line of actions taken by political strong men who have undermined democracy in their countries. It’s also important to remember the United States has some blood on its own hands from past episodes of authoritarian behavior induced by crises such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

The threats to American democratic institutions, free press, elections and other features of a free and open society in which we have grown up are real and immediate. While some of the essays are guardedly optimistic about the resiliency of our Constitution and institutions to resist the imposition of an authoritarian regime, you will find cold comfort in most of the essays. They are, along with other recent works like Elaine May’s Fortress America – How We Embraced Fear & Abandoned Democracy, compelling, history- and fact-based accounts of how democracy can fail, and may actually be failing, under the relentless pressures of an autocratic president supported by a single-party Congress. These are conditions not contemplated by the Founding Fathers whose Constitution, as brilliant as it is, may lack sufficient safeguards against one-party rule that does not respect the values on which that document was based.

If you are serious about understanding what is happening in American politics today, this book is a must-read.

To give you a taste, the chapter entitled “Constitutional Rot” observes that “These four horsemen — polarization, loss of trust, economic inequality, and policy disaster — mutually reinforce each other.” Further, “In an oligarchical system, regardless of its formal legal characteristics, a relative small number of backers effective decide who stays in power.”

In the chapter entitled “Beyond Elections: Foreign Interference with American Democracy,” Samantha Power discusses how non-mediated social media opened the door to Russian influence in U.S. elections. The chapter “Paradoxes of the Deep State” addresses little-known history of the so-called “Deep State” with surprising observations about the “leaks” in the Trump administration. Then, the chapter “How We Lost Constitutional Democracy” sets out grave and chilling warnings about the erosion of democratic norms and the limits of the Constitution as an obstacle to the destruction of democracy as we know it.

As I said earlier, this book is serious stuff and not an easy read. Yet the issues analyzed in it are critical to a deep understanding of what is happening and the extent to which we can “count on the Constitution” as a defense against loss of freedom and democratic process.

When you are finished being frightened to death, I continue to urge everyone to read On Tyranny-Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder, a measly 126 pages. Finally, if you want to dig deeply into some of the mysteries of the behaviors of voters whose conduct you consider self-defeating and borderline insane. I commend to you two tomes that I guarantee will open your eyes to ideas you never dreamed of: Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, and Behave – the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert Sapolsky [skip the details on endocrinology, unless you really dig that sort of stuff].

To conclude, for now, I believe the following to be more likely true than not:

1. Trump’s election was unlawfully procured through interference by, and his collusion with one or more foreign powers; the more he fumes and fulminates against this idea, the more likely it seems to be true;

2. Trump has violated Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution by failing to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed;”

3. Trump has violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution, Article I, Section 9;

4. Trump is guilty of obstruction of justice, which qualifies as a “high crime” or “misdemeanor” under the Constitution, Article 2, Section 4, and, in the specific circumstances, is guilty of treason as well;

5. Trump and members of his family and officials appointed by him, along with Republican members of Congress, have engaged in a conspiracy to conceal evidence of crimes by them and others and to prevent the full investigation and prosecution of such crimes by appropriate government authorities.

I also believe the following truths are now indisputable:

1. Democratic norms are under active siege by a president who neither understands nor cares about such norms;

2. While the prospect of indictment of the president as a result of Special Prosecutor Mueller’s investigation is highly appealing, there is little chance that such a move is going to occur soon and it will, in any case, provoke a lengthy constitutional crisis that will end up in the Supreme Court and therefore not afford a near-term solution to the governance crisis that confronts the nation;

3. The most immediate and most important defense against the oligarchical theocracy, or the theocratic oligarchy, if you prefer, that the president, vice president and Republican Congress want to establish, and to some degree have already established, is for the Democratic Party to take control of Congress in the 2018 elections;

4. Democratic control of both houses of Congress would immediately create an insurmountable bulwark against further destruction of democracy by the administration and lay the framework for removal and prosecution of the Trump gang and its enablers;

5. Trump’s sycophantic supporters are preparing to defend him with aggressive voter turnout and contributions of huge amounts of money. Nonetheless, Democrats must overwhelm them at the polls if we are to turn the tide against the fascist practices of this administration. If we fail, we will face two more years of entrenchment, destruction of the independence of the judiciary and undermining of the free press. The loss of those two elements of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances will make it very difficult, perhaps impossible, to turn back the tide. It’s 2018 or nothing.

6. Every American should view this situation as a grave threat to their well-being and the well-being of their families present and future. It is time for the Democratic Party leadership to start leading politically and for the personal ambitions and agendas of the old guard to yield the floor to the generations that will have the most to lose if the foundations of democracy are not restored. Remember that those who fail to heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.

7. It is time for a game plan that does not repeat the same mistakes that led to the disastrous defeat in 2016. The Republicans know the same things we know about what happened. They have a keen understanding of their political base and how to stimulate it to action on behalf of their agenda. Trump’s base is uninterested in the truth about him or his policies; they have created their own truths in which they choose to believe and nothing is going to change most of them. It is therefore absolutely essential that every potential Democratic vote be cast in every district. There have been a few interim wins in replacement contests, but these are no laurels on which to rest. Democrats cannot afford to give up any seat that is potentially winnable. It’s now or never.

March of the Tin Billionaires

[Warning: this post is long, but so was the speech]

I am not going to spend a lot of time or energy dissecting the State of the Union speech because that will be done elsewhere by persons more knowledgeable about the issues and more skilled in, well, dissecting political speeches. For that purpose, I recommend http://n.pr/2DSyH7G   which, in its typically matter-of-fact way, shows that nothing of substance about President Trump has changed. The outright lies, gross distortions, claiming credit for events he did not cause — it’s all there.

I must digress briefly, and I swear I am not making this up, but when the Cabinet entered the House chamber to much huzzahing from “Republican lawmakers,” the tune from the March of the Tin Soldiers entered unbidden into my head — except that the title was the March of the Tin Billionaires. It was quite a moment seeing deep thinkers like Rick Perry pretending he knows what his job is.

We should, however, admit that the President did a decent, if not great, job of delivering the lines written for him. Thus, we have confirmation that the President of the United States can read and speak the written word. Indications are that Trump loyalists loved it. Of course they did. He read his last speech to Congress without stepping on his … foot. While reading is not mentioned in the Constitution as a prerequisite to being elected president, it’s reassuring that under pressure the President can read.

He is also accomplished at narrowing his eyes and jutting out his chin to look … determined and, well, smug. I suspect those side shots with his head titled back were the way he sees his image engraved on a U.S. coin someday, commemorating the greatest president in the history of the world. Kind of like the Roman emperors. Before the Fall, of course.

Most prominently, Trump was really strong in leading applause. I may be mis-remembering but I don’t recall past presidents applauding so many of their own lines. He even motioned for groups of the audience to rise from their seats when, apparently, they were not responding to his remarks sufficient verve. None of that comes as a big surprise but it was more than a little strange to watch the putative leader of the Free World applauding himself repeatedly. This is, I think, what authoritarian personalities do – “watch me, I’m applauding, so you had better applaud too – I’ve got my eye on you.”

The speaker took care of his little “Puerto Rico problem” by promptly noting that some people were still recovering from the storms there and elsewhere but, don’t worry “we are with you, we love you, and we always will pull through together, always.”

I guess that’s what they mean about “tough love.” You say ”we love you” while withdrawing aid. It’s right out of the magician’s bag — distract attention with the left hand while …. It is reliably reported that four months after Hurricane Maria (the speaker didn’t name the hurricane because, most likely, the name is, well, Spanish sounding) almost a third of the residents have no electricity. FEMA apparently does not consider this an “emergency” any more. Tough love, baby.

The speaker quickly moved to a message, repeated throughout the speech, about what has come to be called “American exceptionalism:”

Over the last year, the world has seen what we always knew – that no people on Earth are so fearless or daring or determined as Americans. If there is a mountain, we climb it. If there is a frontier, we cross it. If there is a challenge, we tame it. If there is an opportunity, we seize it. So let’s begin tonight by recognizing that the state of our union is strong, because our people are strong.

The concept is that Americans are better than everyone else which is why they are entitled to act superior and treat “others” as lesser beings, not equal, “not up to it.” This view of the nature of the country informs virtually all of the administration’s policies. This may be what enables it to cynically espouse practices that threaten to despoil the landscape (level those mountains and you won’t have to climb so much), and poison the air and water in the name of economic growth — American’s are especially tough and they can take it. This is perhaps what enables Trump and his enablers in Congress to act like they are human beings while deporting harmless heads of families to countries they have never known in the interest of “protecting Americans from criminal elements.”

There is, however, some indisputably good news and we do want to be fair here. To quote the speaker: “The great news for Americans – 401k, retirement, pension and college savings accounts have gone through the roof.” Of course, the family in Puerto Rico is saying: “Hey, we have no roof but, yeah, there’s a lot of sunshine coming in.” And today, well, let’s just say that the stock market tanked and leave it at that. Tomorrow is, as the famous saying goes, another day.

Now I’m going to depart from the popular acceptance of what has become a tradition in the SOTU speeches.  I really really wish that presidents, all of them, would stop the practice of bringing various individuals into the House chamber to bleed all over the place or to be held out, to their apparent discomfort, as “American heroes,” exemplars of American virtue to which other humans may aspire but never measure up.

There can be no doubt that people whose daughters were killed by gang members deserve our sympathy but why do presidents believe it is helpful to parade their misery in front of the nation? In

Trump’s case, it is totally cynical — to support his message that those lousy people from south of the Texas border are evil and should be deported or worse. Let’s hope that his comments don’t lead o claims of “unfair trial” and prejudice by the defendants who were singled out for criticism and presumed guilty by no less than the President of the United States. If that happens, Trump will, of course, just blame it on some Mexican judge. And, certainly, the bravery of the helicopter pilot and the firefighter cannot be questioned, but, at least to these eyes, they did not look very comfortable being used as exhibits in support of the president’s agenda.

In one of the most disturbing statements, Trump said “So tonight I call on Congress to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust, or fail the American people.”

Phrased that way, few would object. However, what this likely represents is a further effort to undermine the civil service protections that have largely kept politics out of federal hiring/firing practices. Remove those protections and the way is clear for the administration to populate the civil service with political loyalists and unqualified hacks.

Speaking of which, I must, simply must, note that the day after the speech, Trump’s appointee to head the Center for Disease Control, who had just moved into position in July, resigned in the wake of reports, not denied, that she had been trading in … tobacco stocks. And stocks of major pharmaceutical companies.  And in stock of at least one health insurance giant. http://read.bi/2nyiVEQ

In case you missed it, a spokesperson for the CDC said this:

Dr. Fitzgerald owns certain complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all of her duties as the CDC director….”Due to the nature of these financial interests, Dr. Fitzgerald could not divest from them in a definitive time period.

That is Washington horsepucky for “she couldn’t do her job due to conflicts of interest; resolving those would have cost her too much money so she quit.”

Are we to understand that the vetting process of this administration did not detect that this person was a stock investor; did they not discuss the self-evident concept of “conflict of interest” with her?  Oh, yes, I almost forgot: Japan Tobacco, the irresistible lure for Dr. Fitzgerald’s money, is one-third owned by the Government of Japan! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japan_Tobacco. If you want to make yourself sick without smoking, take a look at this: https://www.jti.com/node/181. This is the same administration that has complained bitterly and falsely about the alleged failure of the prior administration to adequately vet incoming foreigners.

And while you’re at it, if you want to see another stellar example of an administration appointee to high federal office, feast your eyes on this video, if you dare: http://bit.ly/2E8sRy7 View only on an empty stomach.

But I digress again. I was writing about Trump’s SOTU speech.

He proudly declared that “we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal.” Truly, no one knows what the hell he’s talking about. See the NPR critique cited above. Maybe he believes that there is a new kind of coal that is white or translucent, so breathing the dust can kill you but you won’t be able to see it, so what’s the problem?

Regarding energy, jobs and many other topics, my best analogy is to someone who walks to bank of a great river. The river is rising rapidly because of glacial melting and higher-than-normal rainfall hundreds of miles to the north. Noting the increased flow, Trump claims credit — “look at all that water; there has never been so much water until my administration came to power; now the river is rising like never before in history!”

Enough nitpicking the details.  The real issue here is, I think, Trump’s belief that the United States is under attack from every side. Immigrants cruising freely across the southern border to rape, pillage and murder. Foreigners coming here with no intention to work and no useable skills. Bad deals with foreign countries intent on plundering our wealth. And so on.

This is the Fortress American Deja vu all over again. Whether the President actually believes this or is simply playing to his political base that believes it is an open question. Many knowledgeable commentators have suggested that the President has no political philosophy or core set of beliefs at all, other than being a self-promoter and all that is implied by that term.

In any case, among other things, the President has translated the Fortress America concept into a new version of Us versus Them:

Last month, I also took an action endorsed unanimously by the U.S. Senate, just months before. I recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Shortly afterwards, dozens of countries voted in the United Nations General Assembly against America’s sovereign right to make this decision. In 2016, American taxpayers generously sent those same countries more than $20 billion in aid. That is why, tonight, I am asking Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign assistance dollars always serve American interests and only go to friends of America, not enemies of America.” [emphasis mine]

The President has thus gone from “America First” to “America Alone” and in the process branded multiple former strong allies as enemies of America. While international diplomacy has a way of overlooking even the most heinous of hostile stupidities, it is clear enough why, since Trump was elected, the standing of the United States in the international community is at an all-time low, similar to the President’s approval ratings among Americans.

Isolationism has a long history in the United States (see http://bit.ly/1j8FAlI) but was often practiced in the breach as the U.S. extended its commercial hegemony wherever it thought its interests justified it. It has never been an effective foreign policy and was dashed on the rocks of reality when the United States was caught flat-footed by Japan at Pearl Harbor. That attack ended, among other things, the influence of the America First Committee. See http://bit.ly/2GENz7r. The current President did not invent the term ‘America First;’ he resurrected it from the garbage dump of history.

The United States was again surprised by the North Korean invasion of South Korea just five years after the end of World War II.  In the current world of highly interconnected digital communications, jet travel and the rest, it seems the height of folly to pursue a foreign policy based on the idea that the United States can “go it alone.” That nevertheless is the essence of the current President’s “policies” which, ironically appeals to his political base who will likely be among the first call-ups if we end up in a larger war.

And, so, my fellow Americans, we have a situation here where, as one of Trump’s followers said on Facebook the other day, “Obama destroyed America” and yet “the state of the union is strong.” Where we are under assault on every front, yet we are the greatest of all people on the earth and our economy is flourishing.

And, oh yes, where our President is under investigation for obstruction of justice and conspiring with actual historical and current adversaries of our country to fix the last election.

Undeterred by all the self-interested and self-contradictory blather from our disgrace of a national leader, I choose to end on the optimistic note: the American people are sufficiently exceptional that they will survive this blot on their integrity, the republic will survive, bruises and all, and in the end, Martin Luther King Jr. will have been proved right again — we shall overcome.