Archive for November, 2020

The GOP: The Grievance Obsessed Party

November 28, 2020

I left the Republican party when it stopped being a party of principles and ideals. Becoming instead a party of grievance.

The grievances have been economic, cultural, and ethnic, all mashed together. Rustbelt working class resentments about an economy leaving them behind; a culture that seemingly doesn’t care, and disrespects them; displacing them with people who don’t resemble them, whose preferment feels undeserved.

Throw into the mix yet another kind of grievance, over abortion. It’s a legitimate (and difficult) moral issue. But it’s become an obsession out of all proportion to its real societal import. Pro-lifers throw every other moral concern under the bus in pursuing this one White Whale.

President Obama was a vessel for all these grievances — a perfect storm, whipping them up into a toxic stew. Out of which popped another perfect storm: Trump. Whose whole personhood is a grievance machine. He gave voice and vent to the grievances, while doing nothing to resolve them. Instead cynically ratcheting them up.

But at least all those grievances have some tether to reality. Rustbelt economic malaise is real. The nation’s cultural divide is real. Likewise its changing population mix. And abortions actually occur. All complex issues. However, today a new and different kind of grievance beast is rising up, one unique to Republicans, and one divorced from the real world: the mythos of The Stolen Election. Taking hold like the South’s post-Civil War “lost cause” mythologization.

We always knew Trump’s psyche could not accept losing. Crying fraud in advance was his preparatory defense mechanism. Probably his diseased mind actually believes he “won.” But now most of the Republican party seems to be following him down that rabbit hole. Obsessing over this new grievance which, unlike those others discussed, is quite simply a lie.

Polls show 77% to 86% of Trump voters embrace the election theft lie, whose stridency rises even as its credibility collapses. Republican officialdom goes along, afraid to antagonize their base. This rejection of our government’s very legitimacy is deeply poisonous for us as a nation going forward.

And it’s crazy on multiple levels. In the first place, there’s simply no actual evidence for the vast multi-state conspiracy theorized. Secondly, thinking Trump could only have lost by fraud makes no sense. I can understand (sort of) why people voted for him. Can his supporters really not understand so many voting against him? And — if Democrats so easily stole votes, wouldn’t Republicans (surely more unscrupulous) have stolen at least as many? After all, they control more election infrastructure than do Dems. And if Democrats stole the presidency, how come they neglected to steal the Senate and other downballot races?

But a popular trope goes, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” A similar epistemology seems operative for Trump cultists. He’s their god, he says “massive fraud,” so they believe it. Never mind his consistently blatant pathological lying. In for a penny, in for a pound.

America was already suffering an epistemological crisis. Epistemology refers to how we know things. For matters of public concern, we cannot obtain information directly, but must rely on trusted sources. And how do we know which to trust? In such judgments too many people discard plain common sense, often rejecting responsible mainstream sources with proven track records while instead putting faith in obvious fraudsters (like Trump). And with today’s proliferation of sources, it’s easy to convince yourself you’re getting information from a broad variety of them while actually still inhabiting a partisan bubble. With a picture of the world that’s just fundamentally false. Frankly this now afflicts the right far more than the left. I say that objectively, as someone who always considered himself conservative.

America has long been undergoing a schism into two different nations, with two different realities. The disaffection between them aggravated by this toxic new Stolen Election myth. It’s not the only Trumpland lie, just another piled on top of a mountain of them. And without a common understanding of factual reality, the kinds of reasoned public debates that are essential for democracy to function are impossible. Lincoln said America could not endure half slave and half free. We cannot endure half in reality and half outside it.

Memo re: inaugural speech

November 27, 2020

To: Greg Schultz, senior strategist, Biden campaign

From: Frank S. Robinson

Re: Inaugural address

Nov. 9, 2020

Hi Greg,

Don’t know if you’ll have any input on the inaugural speech, but here are two suggestions perhaps you could pass along.

1) Freedom of speech, and religious freedom, have become fraught issues. I propose something like this:

In the Holocaust, millions were put in concentration camps, and killed, because they were Jews. Others too. The world said “never again.” Yet such atrocities still happen. In China, a million Muslim Uighurs are in concentration camps for trying to practice their religion. Elsewhere, people are persecuted for not accepting the dominant religion. In some nations it’s a crime punishable by death. These countries are not our enemies, but we will work to end such assaults on human rights.

Our own Bill of Rights enshrines freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. This is central to our democracy, America’s heart and soul. In America, nobody can stop you from following your faith — or make you bend to someone else’s. But in a democracy, your rights are always balanced against the rights of others. Religious freedom does not mean you can impose your beliefs on other people, nor can it mean exemption from laws and norms that apply to everybody. In our system, government stays out of matters of faith. That’s how we’ve avoided the religious conflicts that have plagued other nations throughout history.

Likewise, freedom of speech means no one can stop you from expressing your opinion; and you cannot stop others from voicing theirs. No matter if you consider their viewpoints unacceptable or pernicious. As Jefferson said, the remedy for bad opinions is not to silence them, not to censor them, but to answer them, with better ones. That discourse and debate, in a free and open democratic society, is how we get to the truth, and progress.

2) The opening line, “My fellow Americans . . . ” I’d love to see end with, “. . . and our brothers and sisters throughout the world.”

Thanks for your consideration,


Thanksgiving during a plague

November 25, 2020

Perhaps typically, the Thanksgiving holiday’s meaning has gotten somewhat lost. It’s mainly now just an occasion for family gathering and feasting. Actually a fine thing, worthy in itself. But those who celebrated the first one really did have reason for thanks: survival. After so many of their number had perished.

Now we gather for Thanksgiving amid a plague ravaging humanity. In fact under consequent strictures that limit our gathering. Yet we can, like those forebears, give thanks that we are after all alive. And that we will prevail.

We are fortunate to inhabit a uniquely hospitable planet. Well, we wouldn’t exist otherwise. And yet, while we romanticize nature, it’s also harsh and unforgiving, and the essence of the human story is our struggle in the face of that, to overcome and to thrive. So too with this pandemic we rise to the challenge. Our battle against it epitomizes our best selves. And we will prevail.

Among all the human communities that ever were, our America shines with special light. And it has been beset by a plague of another sort these past four years. Putting in grave doubt the survival of its best self. But now we have come through, if only by the skin of our teeth. The better angels of our nature have prevailed.

Indeed, in just recent weeks our democracy endured a severe test. Many feared it could buckle under the assault of a very bad man who would stop at nothing, to keep hold of his power, by abusing it. And so he did try; but he has failed, our institutions proved equal to the challenge.

I know the evil is far from fully crushed. The “stolen election” lie is a long-lasting poison injected into our body politic. But as an optimist I believe truth and reason must ultimately prevail. And meantime, the Augean stables are being cleaned out. With a new administration of experienced public-spirited professionals, grown-ups who actually understand the world, and what truly serves this nation. Who can make America great again.

Most fundamentally, a psychology of gratitude is key to a good life. I am lucky to have that; something I’m grateful for. I always count my blessings, and in this November of 2020, there’s a grand new one. This Thanksgiving is for me especially profound.

The Nordic Theory of Everything: Lessons for America

November 23, 2020

America is a great country. Not perfect, but striving to improve — its best characteristic.

Anu Partanen was a young Finnish reporter, who moved here and was surprised by unfavorable comparisons with the Nordic countries — Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland. Her book, The Nordic Theory of Everything, published in 2016 — pre-Trump — explains ways those nations promote human flourishing, which we can learn from.

American lefties see them as model socialist utopias; those on the right as cautionary tales of nannying welfare socialism. Both are wrong, Partanen shows. They’re not “socialist” at all, actually more free-market capitalist than America. That generates wealth, which they use not for “welfare states” so much as well-being states.

It’s what Partanen calls the “Nordic theory of love.” Creating social structures that free people from stresses and constraints, so they can live the best lives possible.

Partanen cites American principles of freedom, individualism, and opportunity, but came to see them as more theoretical than real, with the exigencies of American life actually forcing people into greater dependency, constraining their choices and freedom of action. Reading this, I wondered whether anti-mask fervor with all its misplaced “freedom” talk is a kind of transference, a cri de coeur over complex feelings of lost true personal freedom in today’s U.S. society. Going maskless is a simplistic counter.

Nordic family and parental leave, pensions, and other financial support policies tend to be far more generous than America’s. A main concern is child development, making an investment in the next generation. It’s recouped many times over when they grow into well-adjusted, productive, self-sufficient individuals. Family-friendly policies also make having children more attractive — combating low birth rates and boosting economies to the extent those children do become productive adults.

That’s all fine, but I felt Partanen was comparing Nordic societies mainly to America’s middle class with too little attention to less-than-affluent Americans, who seemed largely invisible to her. Yet that’s where our failure to invest in all youngsters really bites, getting us legions of poorly educated, poorly adjusted people, with problems of unemployability, crime, homelessness, addiction, etc. — ultimately costing society far more than it would have taken to make them contributing members in the first place.

Schooling is critical. Partanen writes about relatively well-off American parents struggling to advance their kids’ educational prospects, whereas Nordic parents don’t have to, feeling sure of good schooling. Again she doesn’t really discuss economically disadvantaged American kids, who are basically written off altogether. A key reason is U.S. schools funded mainly through local property taxes, inevitably magnifying the disadvantages of the poor. We give lip service to equal quality education for all children but accept falling woefully short. The Nordics really do it.

Turning to health care, our problems are familiar. It started because employee health insurance payments are tax-deductible by businesses and are tax-free income to workers. Making such insurance, tied to employment, ubiquitous. This structure adds huge administrative complexity and costs. And insurers’ economic incentive is not to serve customers but to deny coverage. While hospitals can get away with billing outrageous amounts, often not covered by insurance. Result: costs way higher than in other advanced nations, financially ruinous for many people, without buying us better health.

In Nordic nations health care is pretty much simply taken care of by government, so there’s no financial worry for citizens, nor wrestling with bureaucracies. Partanen respects Americans’ concern about freedom to choose one’s own doctor, etc., but concludes that real freedom is assurance of good care without hassles or money stress. This does entail higher taxes, but the bottom line is lower costs overall.

Tax comparisons are complicated (especially given America’s convoluted system) but broadly speaking most people actually pay similarly in both places. However, Americans must pay heavily for things, like health care, child care, elder care, and college tuition, that Nordics get from government for their taxes. Those countries seem to operate a lot leaner, so all those goodies don’t break the bank. And a big difference is the richest Americans paying lower effective rates than average people. Partanen wrote of that growing gap before Trump’s tax legislation made it even wider. Of course under-taxing the richest makes taxes higher for the rest. And Partanen writes that the Nordics prove how taxing the rich at fair (though not exorbitant or punitive) rates does not impair entrepreneurialism or economic prosperity.

Indeed, freeing businesses of obligations for employee health care and pensions enables them to be more dynamic and competitive. In global “ease of doing business” rankings, Nordics score higher than America. And they’ve cultivated the most valuable economic resource: human capital.

Not only have most Americans become dependent on employers for health care, Partanen observed another kind of dependency here — children all but smothered by helicopter parenting, while the elderly rely on their children for care. It all costs time, effort, and money. Making the financial aspects of marriage more salient while transforming it “into an unappealing morass of squandered careers, insane schedules, and lost personal liberty.” Becoming impossible for the less affluent, for whom marriage is falling by the wayside. That in turn stunts their children’s opportunities. Partanen concludes that American society just isn’t structured to support families. Unlike the Nordics and, indeed, just about every other modern wealthy country.*

It all comes down again to the “Nordic Theory of Love.” Making individuals independent and equal. This applies not only to married couples, but between parents and children, and vice versa. Hence the goal is really the opposite of “socialist dependency” — to remove all forms of dependency, within both the family and the larger society. To allow “all human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.”

Some might say Nordic citizens are dependent too — upon government. But actually, what they get from government is just taken for granted, in the background of their lives. Very different from the personal dynamics made fraught by intra-family dependencies.

Partanen admires Americans’ positive attitude in spite of all the ways our society makes things hard, while Nordics tend to be morose despite societal structures more conducive to happiness. This seeming paradox reflects humans having well-being set-points independent of life circumstances. Thus the Nordic approach aims to enable people to be as happy as their innate personalities allow. And Americans could be even happier by emulating them.

I consider myself conservative, hating a nanny state telling people what to do; believing government should restrict us only as necessary to prevent harm to others. But rather than regimenting people, the Nordics aim to remove impediments and create the conditions for them to live the best lives possible according to their own proclivities.

America does do this, to a degree, through a complex web of social safety nets. But without any over-arching philosophy akin to a “theory of love.” And public support for such programs is weak, often seen as government giving undeserved handouts to moochers and “line cutters” at the expense of hard-working people. Racial antagonism is a factor, with the benefits being associated with minorities. While in fact such welfare payouts are modest in comparison to the government benefits middle class people receive, often without realizing it, as with tax breaks. The biggest “moochers” are corporations and the wealthy.

On the other hand, the left talks of inequality and “social justice.” I think that’s the wrong framing. “Justice” entails concepts of deservingness, which are arguable here. But unarguably, helping all our citizens to live good decent lives is simply humane. We should do it because they are our fellow human beings, and differing life circumstances are often due just to luck rather than merit or its lack. It would make this a better country for all of us. We are a very rich society that can amply afford it.

* Ironically, it’s “family values” conservatives most opposing policies to do that.

Covid-19, Trump, election integrity, masks, schools, and everything

November 20, 2020

Covid is surging in virtually every state, worse than ever, a million U.S. infections a week, a quarter million dead and rising fast, hospitals overwhelmed — and national leadership is out to lunch. Not even trying, or pretending to, any more.

Remember the task force Mike Pence headed? Whatever became of that? And Trump has not met with disease experts in months. Real ones he’s shut out, elevating instead this crackpot Scott Atlas, with no epidemiology background, who’s helpfully advising Michiganders to “rise up” against their governor’s anti-covid measures.

Trump campaign e-mail blasts tout vaccine progress. While he actually sabotages the vaccine rollout by refusing cooperation with the incoming administration. Based on the absurd lie that Trump actually won the election. But claims about a big conspiracy to steal it from him, massive fraud, dead people voting, observers kept out, ballots mishandled, etc., are all simply made up nonsense, devoid of evidence, laughed out of court. Giuliani’s appearances there (billing the campaign $20,000 a day) shred his reputation’s last dregs.

Trump would have to somehow flip at least three states with five-digit Biden margins. That being impossible, now his grift is to get Republican-controlled state legislatures to brazenly override popular votes and appoint Trump electors regardless. Never done in our history. Talk about a conspiracy to steal the election! After all Trump’s past false accusations of a “coup” against him, thisis a real coup attempt.

Farcical though it might seem, this is no joke. “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president,” said Republican Senator Mitt Romney. People around the world are shocked by such banana republic shenanigans. And even if he can’t overturn the election, Trump’s baseless fraud claims — 77% of Republicans polled believe this insanity — 86% in another poll — aim to destroy the next administration’s legitimacy and hence its ability to govern. Aided by continued Senate control by a morally bankrupt and intellectually deranged Republican party that, shamefully, nearly half of Americans still support.

By the way, did you know that, on top of everything, a mid-December government shutdown looms?

*   *   *

After eight months’ experience with covid, we actually know what’s needed. But we’re not doing it. Indeed, Trump continues to fight against doing it. Much of the U.S. is keeping restaurants, gyms, and other public venues largely open, but schools closed. Much of Europe does the opposite — with better results.

Because it’s indoor adult gatherings that most commonly spread the virus. That’s what Europeans are cracking down on. This does create much economic hardship, but reflects an understanding that we can’t get past all this and restore economies while covid continues running amok. This doesn’t seem to penetrate enough American skulls.

Arizona covid chart

We’ve done some locking down, but haphazardly, so incurring the pain without getting the benefits. The New York Times cites Arizona’s example, with a big June covid spike, prompting harsh restrictions. They worked splendidly, but then were eased in August, and infections shot back up. With that happening all over now, another round of restrictions is underway, but often again falling short of what experts say is needed. Many rules seem just weird. New York recently announced that venues can stay open til 10 PM, if they have a liquor license. Huh??

Masks and social distancing help tremendously. It isn’t rocket science. We know the virus spreads mainly via droplets in the air, coming out of noses and mouths and getting into other people’s noses and mouths. Your mask blocks droplets both going out and coming in. And because droplets tend not to travel far before falling to the ground, people keeping some distance apart also reduces ingestion.

Most Americans have acted accordingly, only 15-20% refusing. It’s those 15-20% responsible for causing most infections and deaths. With Trump’s insane encouragement. Literally insane, because for all his obsession with re-election, he destroyed his chances by encouraging anti-maskers, so covid predictably exploded in his face.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, research shows the one type of indoor gathering least risky is school, especially elementary school (with social distancing and other precautions). While, on the other hand, closing schools has long-range consequences far more dire than closing restaurants, bars, or gyms.

Millions of students are being switched to remote learning. But for too many, it’s more remoteness than learning. Indeed, what we learn in school is far more than reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. A key part of educational development is socialization — how to negotiate relations with other people. (I missed some of that, being out of school a lot, and still feel handicapped by it.) But even for the more academic stuff, there’s much evidence that learning together with others in a classroom setting works better than solitary study. Particularly for reading and math, surrounding kids with letters and numbers. And one key thing a classroom provides is feedback — children “need people to see what they are doing, to cheer them on, to rally them to care and respond,” says literacy expert Lucy Calkins, quoted in a Times report.

What this means is that we’re raising a cohort of future adults who will never fully make up for lost classroom time, going through life less educated than would otherwise have been the case. A disaster when a solid educational grounding is more vital than ever for flourishing as a member of modern society. The cumulative hit to GDP, over decades, will be astronomical.

Affluent families, with parents who are themselves well-educated and capable, riding herd on their kids, with good home infrastructure and resources, can be expected to mitigate the damage somewhat. But less so as you descend the socio-economic ladder. Many poor kids lack basics of computer equipment and connectivity.

It’s long been a huge scandal of American society that whereas education might ideally be a great equalizer and engine of upward mobility, instead, for those who start out disadvantaged, our educational system actually worsens that. Affluent kids go to decent schools; underprivileged kids to lousy schools. Widening the inequality.

Covid-induced school closures widen it yet more. The whole remote learning thing is largely new, that educators weren’t trained for, and they’re scrambling to adapt. It shouldn’t surprise us that it’s going better in schools in affluent suburbs than in poverty-ridden inner cities. And here again, strong parental partnering helps a lot. But parents in less affluent homes — often single parents — have too many other problems of their own.

Just getting kids engaged with schoolwork at home is a challenge. A study by ParentsTogether, an advocacy group, found low-income parents ten times likelier than those with $100,000 incomes to report their children doing little or no remote learning. Indeed, The Times quoted an administrator in a high school full of low income and immigrant students saying many are just disappearing — quietly dropping out of school altogether. It’s no mystery that remote learning feels remote to them, in contrast with a classroom experience.

Yet in many places we’re closing schools but letting bars stay open. UNICEF says school closures are creating a “lost generation” of students while doing little to curtail the virus.

*   *   *

Two months to go with Trump. Throughout, I’ve kept on saying, “it will get worse.” It always has. And so it will still.

My mother’s 100th birthday

November 18, 2020

My mother, Lotte Robinson, turned 100 on November 16, and I went to California for the party.

Lotte Dreyfuss was born in Nurnberg, Germany. Her father had taken a bullet for his country in WWI. The family was affluent and Jewish. In 1937 they sent Lotte safely to school in England; she arrived in the United States as a refugee on May 14, 1938. The rest of the family followed, though a grandmother died in a concentration camp. Lotte went on to marry and raise two children in the quintessential American way. Hitler’s dead 75 years, but Lotte is still here.

Lives in her own home (able to afford full-time care). Still has her marbles. Short term memory shot, but no dementia, and still a very positive attitude, constantly repeating how lucky she is. Though she’s been everywhere and seen everything, she’s the farthest thing from jaded. Her favorite words have always been Gorgeous, Marvelous, and Unbelievable.

Being in California less than 24 hours made my return less complicated, under New York’s travel restrictions. In two days I had six flights, stopping in four different cities (Detroit twice). But I reminded myself that the entire peregrination took less time than just getting home from Somaliland last December.

Flying over the vast American expanse, seeing it through an airplane window, has always inspired emotion. This time more than ever. Returning from my mother’s 100th; returning home to my beloved wife. And my dark anxiety for my country having lifted; it’s been saved, with my own proud participation. The whole world looks brighter. We still face grave problems, but help is on the way. Looking out that airplane window, my heart was full.

Normal People

November 15, 2020

Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People is about people. No subject fascinates us more. It’s why storytelling arose. Helping us understand the people we live among.

The novel challenges readers to understand its two chief characters. Are they the “normal people” of the title? Not exactly. In fact they themselves are prone to questioning whether they’re “normal people,” like others of their acquaintance. But what is “normal?” Everybody is different in their own ways. These two are different — but different within normal parameters.

The book follows them over four years, in high school and college, in contemporary Ireland. Connell is a footballer, social, popular with his friends, without much in the way of issues. Normal enough it seems. Until his entanglement with Marianne, who is more of a “case.” Very smart and a quintessential loner, she observes the social jockeying among her classmates with anthropological bemusement, content to hold herself apart. For that, they in turn consider her something of a freak.

Connell’s mother works as a sometime cleaner in Marianne’s more affluent home. That link leads to sex. But Connell dares not acknowledge their relationship openly, to protect his social standing. For a prom-like event, he asks a different girl. Marianne is hurt to an unexpected degree, beclouding her connection with Connell.

Yet it continues as he intentionally follows her to college. There Marianne, freed of her high school baggage, soon molts into not quite a wild party girl, but something in that direction. Now suddenly attractive to males, she finds she likes it, and uses it. She has a boyfriend. Connell has a girlfriend. But meantime their bond with each other endures and deepens.

Are they actually in love, after all? Not a simple question. Sometimes it is one, in human affairs, but often it’s more complicated. The book puts these two people’s feelings under a microscope. It’s not enough to just report what they do and say. There are underlying reasons, sometimes multiple and even conflicting reasons. Such nuances the author exquisitely, sometimes Proustianly, explores.

And where does it all end up? Just when the pair seem to have given in to the fact of their being inextricably together, it ends not with a bang but a whimper. That seemed very fitting. Ambiguity is not banished. Life can be like that.

In reading such a book, one seeks to better understand other people, but also oneself. Unsurprisingly it made me ponder upon my own ancient history in relation to the characters. I could identify somewhat with Marianne, except that the social business she consciously disdained was in fact completely invisible to me. Reading something like this makes me think — was all this kind of stuff really going on, all around me, during my school years, and I had no clue?

It still seems a miracle to me that I eventually grew into a husband and father. A normal person. In some ways at least.

The Million Moron March, and political tribalism

November 13, 2020

There were fears of a violent insurrectionary “March on Washington” by gun nuts to keep Trump in office. Violence may yet occur. But what we’ll mainly see at tomorrow’s march is a sad sick freak show. (Hopefully way less than a million.)

Featuring “Proud Boys” and other white nationalists, the deranged Alex Jones and other conspiracist cuckoos, you get the picture. The worst of the worst, all marching for a loony lie — that Trump actually won the election. The march endorsed by his campaign, and Fox’s national joke Sean Hannity.

Its marquee is “Stop the Steal.” More accurately “Start the Steal,” because the real aim is to somehow steal the election Biden won fair and square, by a pretty strong margin at that.

Calling it stolen from Trump is not just a lie (backed by no substantive facts), it’s an extremely harmful lie, because it tears apart the nation’s fabric, by undermining trust and respect for its key institutions and democracy itself. Exactly what Putin and China want. And these people have the brass to wave the flag and call themselves “patriots.”

Trumpism has always been an edifice of lies. Starting with “birtherism” and building from there. Lie upon lie upon lie, making war on the concept of truth itself. So people won’t know anymore that there’s even such a thing as truth (the ultimate triumph of postmodernism).

Look, I get it that people have political opinions different from mine. That’s fine. But it’s unnerving to see how people’s political views can override what should be normal resistance to being manipulated by a blatantly self-interested fraudster. How blind can you make yourself?

It’s political tribalism carried to its farthest extreme. An ethos of us-against-them, with winning becoming all, no matter the cost. That’s bad enough. But now it’s even sustaining a fiction of winning despite actually losing.

The New York State Writers Institute hosted a talk by Yale Law Professor Amy (“Tiger Mother”) Chua, whose latest book concerns political tribalism.* She sees America as a “supergroup” nation. Nationalism is a kind of group identity. But what sets us apart is the degree to which subgroup identity also thrives. Referring to ethnicities, religions, cultural affinities, and of course politics. She contrasts this with other countries like France, for example, with nationalistic feeling, but limited opportunity for expression of subgroup identities. It’s the interplay between the broad nationalism and the strong subgroup factor that makes America distinctive, Chua argues.

It can be a great thing. My town has had an annual Greek festival, where Greek-Americans celebrate their heritage — with no insularity, but the wider community welcomed to participate; I’ve attended myself. Exemplifying our apt national motto, e pluribus unum. 

But such subgroup identity can be toxic, Chua says, when it infects politics. There’s nothing zero-sum about the Greek festival, but politics always entails winners and losers. Okay when it’s just your candidate losing. But when it’s your tribe, that’s something else.

And worse yet, for too many people, political tribalism has gotten entwined with another sort. Mainly white identity.

As Chua notes, this is a relatively new development. Indeed, white identity didn’t even seem to be a thing so long as whiteness was unassailably dominant as the cultural standard. There was nothing for whites to think about.

Exemplar of white racial superiority

But now there is, for some, seeing that white dominance eroding. “White supremacy” is a quite accurate term — it’s not just the idea of racial superiority, it’s also white cultural and political supremacy.

To be clear, it’s only a minority of whites feeling this way. But it’s a significant minority. And while not all Trump fans buy into it, it’s nevertheless at the heart of Trumpism.

For those people, it’s not just Trump losing. It’s whiteness. That’s what many are really marching about tomorrow.

Chua quoted Nietzsche, that mental illness is rare in individuals, but less so in groups. We sure see it in the Trump world’s willingness to disengage the normal human lie detector. That’s where political commitment transmutes into mental illness. Exemplified by the “Stop the Steal” movement.

But Chua concluded on a positive note, saying that what should be the core of American nationalist identity, holding all our subgroups together, are the values embodied in the Constitution. Thus a nation founded not on blood and soil, but on ideas and ideals.

* Here’s a link to view it:

Transition travesty: the expanding Republican alternate universe

November 11, 2020

After years of falsely saying Democrats “refused to accept” the 2016 election — actually, it was Trump refusing to accept losing the popular vote — we always knew he’d never accept a 2020 defeat.

Descending farther into its alternate universe, now one where Biden didn’t win the election, the administration is flouting legal requirements for cooperating with the transition. In 2000, even before the Supreme Court sealed Bush’s razor-thin victory, the Clinton administration was already working with Bush’s team on the transition.

But Secretary of State Pompeo yesterday promised “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” Challenged by a reporter’s question, he dismissed it as “ridiculous.” Attorney General Barr has announced there will be vote investigations — without citing any evidence warranting them. (The Justice Department official in charge of such matters resigned in protest.) Congressional Republicans are all-in on this disgraceful opera buffa, insisting the election is not over, it’s not up to the media to decide it, no results have yet been certified, it was a giant fraud, Trump should to pursue all legal remedies, and may actually have won.

Reality: the news media merely report vote numbers that state election authorities officially announce. “Certifying” them is a mere formality later. Reality: Biden was elected, by a clear and actually sizable margin. Growing as vote counting continues. Reality: no conceivable lawsuit or recount will reverse that. This is not like 2000 where the outcome hinged on a few hundred unclear ballots in a single state. Here tens of thousands of votes in each of several states would have to be flipped. The chances are zip, zero, zilch.Reality: Trump’s fraud bloviations are unencumbered by any facts. All his lawsuits have been laughed out of court so far. There’s nothing here that will ever get to the Supreme Court.

And if counts in states Biden carried are investigated, how about investigating those Trump won?

Reality: for all Trump’s all-in-caps bombast about CHAOS, FRAUD, and a STOLEN ELECTION, what’s truly remarkable is just how smoothly and fairly this election went. Despite the pandemic, despite all the intense partisan bitterness, and fears over violence, foreign hacking, disinformation, and other sorts of mischief. Election chicanery has historically been as American as apple pie; I wrote a book in which it featured prominently; yet in this election it was conspicuous for its absence. Really a great credit to our democracy and all the good dedicated public servants responsible. Reality: the big fraud is Trump’s assault upon our democracy.

Back in the actual universe, President-elect Biden is calmly showing a steady hand, getting to work on the transition, tackling the real challenges confronting the nation. Exemplifying why voters chose him over Trump bedlam.

Republicans bleat about patriotism. Their email blasts repeatedly call upon “patriots” to “protect” Trump’s “victory” and “the integrity of the election.” Calling Democrats “unhinged” and “insane.” This hysteria is the antithesis of patriotism. It makes America look like a banana republic. Transition non-cooperation harms national security. And it injures America when people are falsely told it’s somehow mired in corruption, destroying their allegiance to the country. Instead of helping us get past our divisions, it enflames them. (At least Trump hasn’t explicitly incited his gun nuts. Yet.)

So why are Republicans doing this? What can they gain? Well, money, for starters. The emails flooding in by the minute all ask for money. With the usual fake “1000% match.” Likely the money won’t even be used for the advertised purpose, defrauding donors.

Of course they’re also coddling Trump’s diseased psyche, that cannot process losing. But it’s more than that, and even more cynical. Convincing Republican voters the election was stolen fires up their sense of grievance and embitterment, stoking their future loyalty to the cause. Even while it disgraces that cause.

This was all actually predicted. Trump’s discouraging Republicans from voting by mail was a set-up to create the Election Night “red mirage” of his leading before mail ballots could be counted; then to falsely cry fraud when those (lawful) ballots, inevitably favoring Biden, appear “magically” and reverse Trump’s leads.

Rudy Giuliani thundered, “Are we stupid? Are we fools?” Well, if the shoe fits.

Reality: our system, thankfully, is working. The locomotive of normal processes for electing and installing a new president implacably barrels down the track. Trump’s lies cannot derail this reality train, at long last steaming toward him.

A new America

November 9, 2020

Some commentators are opining that, in retrospect, Biden was the only candidate who could have beaten Trump. Biden outpaced most other Democrats on the ballot, the presidential outcome was fairly close, and it wasn’t issues or policies that shaped it. Not even the covid catastrophe seems to have moved many votes, except insofar as it reflected the more elemental factors, a hunger for a return to decency and an end to chaos — central to Biden’s appeal. That’s why I’d supported him from the start, as the right candidate. A perfect joining of a man and a moment. Seems so clear now.

Many too have discussed how Trump sabotaged himself. But of course he’s never really had a clue about anything. Always acting on his gut — a gut unencumbered by any knowledge of reality. Pundits noted that his attempted character assassination of Biden never gained traction (outside his cult). I was chortling: Hey, you’re Donald Trump running against Joe Biden — and you want to make character the issue??

It’s remarkable how all the skepticism toward Biden, all the mocking and belittling, all the posited lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy, seems to have melted away, like snows in Spring. My November 4 blog post (the outcome already clear to me) ended by saying there should be dancing in the streets. I meant it figuratively. I was thrilled to see it happening literally, all across the country, Saturday afternoon. Already it felt like a new and different America.

Yet in many ways this election shows America the same as in the recent past — only more so. Remember when a Reagan could carry 49 states? That was a different America. You may dispute the judgment on Reagan, but at least that was a country that could come together in collective objective judgment, overcoming partisan biases. I needn’t reprise why such a judgment in 2020 ought to have been far more ineluctable than in 1984. Yet now objectivity and judgment are out the window, partisan tribalism trumping everything. Party is personal identity. At least for an awful lot of people — mainly, frankly, Republicans.

America thusly becoming two different and separate countries is exemplified by this startling fact: in a majority of counties Democrats won in 2016, their margin rose in 2020 — and in a majority of counties Republicans won in 2016, their margin rose in 2020.

Some of us foresaw demographics inexorably eroding Republican strength over time. This election belies that theory. The reality is more complicated; people don’t conform to stereotypes. Close partisan division may be entrenched for a long time.

Despite the mentioned obvious reasons for Biden’s victory, it was a case of nudging the needle just enough. Just as Trump did in 2016. A nation lurching from one governance extreme to another every four years, based on a mere handful of votes in a handful of states, seems crazy. Well, that’s the land we live in. And the close partisan division makes for much governmental paralysis no matter which side is temporarily on top.

Yet elections do matter. The last four years proved that. And had Trump won this time, it would now be a really different country, having crossed a Rubicon in an arguably irreversible direction. As an optimist, I truly feel my country has been saved. For now, at least.