Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Hate, love, humanism, and (of course) Trump

June 4, 2019

I’ve been called a hater, in blog comments. My extensive political analyses written off as simply hate. As though Trump hate is somehow built into me; a pathology; a cause rather than an effect.

It’s an easy way to dismiss someone’s opinion you don’t like. But do I actually have some blind irrational hatred for Trump?

“Nonjudgmentalism” has been a big cultural trope, like it’s wrong to judge anybody for anything. Yet we evolved as judgment making machines. Because survival depended on judgments about threats. This was the context of our social evolution — harmful behavior threatened the group. So we evolved a powerful detector for that — our sense of justice — with a proclivity to make the judgments that go with it. Thus hate for wrongness is deeply embedded in human nature, it’s integral to our social makeup, and it is mostly a good thing.

Except we’re not always right about what’s wrong. “Better safe than sorry” causes too many false positives. There’s a difference between hating something truly wrong, and hating something (or someone) for the wrong reasons.

Furthermore, psychology comes into it. Obviously people vary between sunnier and darker dispositions. The latter predisposes one more toward hate. And the more that’s the case, the less likely the hate will be rational, the more likely to be directed at wrong targets. Certainly true when it comes to ethnic hatreds (aggravated by another evolutionary trait, suspicion toward people unlike us).

I myself am far at the sunnier end of the spectrum. Indeed, I literally wrote the book on optimism. When I started work on what became that book, it forced me to examine and think through my beliefs, more deeply than I’d never done before. I am a humanist. This valorizes, first and foremost, human life, and what I call the human project, to achieve the best possible quality of life for us all.

Thinking trough this humanism heightened my love for humans, both collectively and individually. I’ve spoken of making judgments. But absent full knowledge of any given person, the likelihood, the default assumption, is that they’re a good person. It’s usually true.

I think I’m a good person, but it’s easy for me as I’ve had an extremely fortunate life. Most others have not; for them it’s much harder. Yet most are nonetheless good. Struggling with life’s challenges, trying very hard to live good lives. For this I love them.

Of course nobody is a saint, and some do bad things. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is often wisdom. However, there are people deserving harsh judgment. And while I do look upon most others with love, it’s also the case that my own judgment module, my injustice detector, is set on “high.”

Partly this is a further consequence of how fully, by now, I have built the ideas and principles I apply to the world. And the objectivity I’ve also cultivated, striving to see things as they really are. I also try to stay extremely well informed (with genuine news, not Facebook garbage). All this makes me confident in my judgments, grounded in a sound rational outlook. So when I see something as wrong, I am very clear on how and why it’s wrong.

Like most human beings, most Trump supporters are not bad people. I don’t hate them. They too struggle with life’s challenges. They’re very misguided, led astray by an unscrupulous con man who plays their vulnerabilities and anxieties like a violin. They’re short on the knowledge and intellectual equipment to see through the blizzard of lies. They have misdirected hatreds. They’re human; all these are very human failings. Overcoming them is part of the great human project. And, in the big sweep of history, we’re making much progress.

A beacon of that progress has been the United States of America. Playing a huge role in leading the rest of the world into a better place. On my wall is a picture of our postage stamp proclaiming “America’s light fueled by truth and reason.” Dimming that light is tragic.

For this Trump bears grave responsibility. A rare person whose own flame burns pure with wickedness. Hate the sin but love the sinner? Is he, indeed, a pitiable victim of a twisted character he cannot control? Maybe some truth in that; yet we have enough free will to be responsible for who we are. Still I might merely pity him were he not doing such vast harm. If there’s anything properly to be hated in this world, it is such consequential wickedness.

The hatred not a cause, but an effect.

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The crisis of followership

May 30, 2019

Great Britain has a crisis of leadership. One main party now headed by an agit-prop Marxist; the other by a hapless prime minister, who has now quit, leaving the crazies to take over.

This prompted The Economist’s “Bagehot” columnist (covering Britain) to recall a long ago discussion about leadership — where management guru Peter Drucker said we actually need to think more about followership. (Here’s a link: https://www.economist.com/britain/2019/05/04/britains-followership-problem) If we don’t see great leaders like Lincoln, Churchill, and FDR, maybe it’s because followership has changed.

In America, Democratic party followers are riven between two opposing tendencies. One feels we need radicalism, blowing up the system. The other wants to seize the center ground, to return America to normalcy. Would-be leaders play to one or the other ethos, the gap seemingly unbridgeable. The followers want the leaders to follow them, not the other way around.

The Republicans’ situation is the opposite. They’re totally united, in following one leader — down the road to perdition.

Bagehot says politics works (or should) by politicians gaining authority from voters and using it to do the work of government. Authority had long been gained through followership, with three basic paradigms: voter deference to an elite; class solidarity; and perceived competence.

All three have broken down. The very idea of deference rankles. The idea of competence elicits laughs. And class consciousness has faded. The result is a collapse in legitimacy and a widening gap between leaders and followers.

Which, says Bagehot, “has sent new forces surging through the body politic.” Including know-it-all cynicism on the one hand and, on the other, sudden enthusiasms for radical nostrums. I would add the degeneration of political discourse into what looks more like team rivalry; color war rather than class war. Policies are only a thin veneer on what is really a cultural, tribal divide. Us-against-them, with winning all that matters. Trampling “the better angels of our nature.”

Meantime, Bagehot writes, the most dangerous motivator “is the combination of anger, disappointment and bloody-mindedness” — in a word, resentment. And Bagehot fears this politics of resentment will likely trump the politics of problem-solving for some time.

Speaking of Trump — oddly, the column actually doesn’t. Yet obviously Trump’s election represented exactly what it talks about. A gotterdammerung of resentment and bloody-mindedness, when too many American voters threw responsible citizenship to the winds and plunged for its antithesis.

And of course the great irony: why expect such nihilism to achieve what (inchoately, confusedly) they sought? Surely a leap from the frying pan to the fire.

Indeed, Bagehot quotes the words people most commonly use in condemning politicians: “contemptible, disgraceful, parasitical, sleazy, traitorous.”

Remind you of anyone in particular?

Reparations for slavery?

May 27, 2019

Reparations for slavery is becoming part of the “progressive” full Monty that Democratic presidential candidates must endorse. It’s a terrible idea.

Recently The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah acknowledged the issue’s complications, but waved them away, as mere details that can be worked out. An over-used cliché that I really hate is “the devil is in the detail.” But here it’s unavoidable.

Even if reparations for slavery were an appealing idea, it falls apart the moment you consider seriously the problem of who, exactly, to pay. There’s nobody who’s totally descended from slaves. Slavery ended around six or seven generations ago. For any living black American, the direct ancestors from that era would number dozens to hundreds. Surely not all were enslaved. Many came here later from other countries. Many were white. Okay, maybe you could (arbitrarily) draw a line at 50% slave ancestry. Or some other number. But nobody can document their whole family tree that far back anyway. Any such program would be an implementation nightmare.

Or would you propose to sidestep this morass and simply base payments on skin color? The darker, the bigger the payment? Sounds like a great idea, no?

Slavery was a horrible crime (as I’ve written:http://www.fsrcoin.com/Slavery.htm). But history is full of crimes. Look at Native Americans. And how about women, also seriously oppressed and denied rights in past times? Why not reparations for descendants of all those women?

It’s a fundamental precept of justice that wrongs should be redressed among victims and perpetrators — not others. It’s a principle we fallible humans too often violate. As in collective punishments and vengeance. The sins of the fathers visited upon the sons. If a Xendari has committed an atrocity against your people, then by all means punish him — but do not exact revenge by committing a new crime against other, innocent Xendaris. That’s no justice. So too, taxpayers who did no enslaving shouldn’t be made to pay compensation. Let alone to people who were not themselves enslaved.

It is true that slavery has had lasting impacts, a key factor in black Americans’ lower average socio-economic standing. But can one say that any particular person today would be better off had no ancestors been enslaved? Some surely would be worse off. Many U.S. descendants of slaves are doing very well. But had history been different, they would not exist today at all, making any such considerations quintessentially meaningless.

It is also true that many whites take for granted their “white privilege” — exemption from a lot of crap non-whites experience. For this some feel “white guilt.” However, the concept of guilt should require some causal responsibility. Most whites today have done nothing wrong to feel guilty for. Certainly not to be punished for.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. If we really think slavery’s reverberations still cause disadvantage to some Americans, then the proper answer is to create public policies that remove that disadvantage. Basically, to create a more just society overall. Which indeed we’ve been working at (though far from perfecting). “Affirmative action” is a case in point. Never mind all the issues affirmative action raises; but hasn’t this been reparations, by another name?

A better way to make reparation for the disadvantage suffered by many African-Americans would be to at least stop aggravating it with sub-standard education. Public schools in poor/non-white neighborhoods are often disgraceful. Yet Democrats calling for reparations mostly refuse to face up to this huge issue, in hock to teachers’ unions and ideologically opposing school choice to give those kids at least some chance to escape dysfunctional public schools.

It’s argued that reparations would be a way to give recognition to what blacks have suffered. But their feelings are not the beginning and the end of the matter. Indeed, to the contrary, a big part of the problem is what white people feel toward them. If we want whites to stop being racist, is reparations the right answer? If we really want to heal our nation’s wounds from slavery and racism, wouldn’t reparations enflame those wounds? Many would see reparations as an injustice, and for the reasons I’ve suggested, they’d have a plausible argument. The issue would be disastrously divisive. We already have a big problem of white racial antagonism and resentment. Just wait till reparations are enacted.

Furthermore, if Democrats push this issue it would feed every negative stereotype about them. As coddling some interest groups at the expense of others, and even of the nation as a whole. Defying what many people consider common sense. And it would be a huge distraction from what really should be the issues for 2020 – all the ways Trumpism is degrading America. If Democrats truly want to achieve a better, more just nation, the main thing they can do right now is to ensure getting rid of the racist-in-chief.

Follow-up — Tony Milillo — The pathology of the hard left

May 21, 2019

My last post concerned abortion. I also put it on the Capital District Humanist Society’s Facebook page, where one Tony Milillo entered two comments — highly revealing and instructive. Here they are, in their entirety:

1. Well there you have it, according to Frank S. Robinson anyone who has an abortion from the end of the second trimester forward is killing a human being. And Frank “the expert on everything” also declares Roe v. Wade “a bad decision”. How the heck has the humanist society tolerated this blowhard for so long? From what I can see, the best that can be said about this guy is he has far too much time on his hands and far too high an opinion of himself.

2. From bad to worse from Mr. Robinson: “Talk of “women controlling their own bodies” is another big mistake of pro-choicers. If there’s a second human life inside it, it’s not just your own body any more, so the notion is morally shaky. But what the issue really does come down to is women having some control over their LIVES.”

First notice that my essay’s mainly criticizing Republican pro-lifers isn’t good enough for Mr. Milillo; I’m as bad as they are because I’m not an absolutist pro-choice zealot. 

Then notice that, to fit me into his box, Mr. Milillo’s very first sentence grossly misrepresents what I wrote; imputes to me a view my essay explicitly contradicted. 

It set forth the reasons behind my thinking. But notice also that Mr. Milillo’s two comments contain not a single word of actual argument. As though his own rightness and my wrongness is a given. Indeed, his second comment simply quotes me. Case closed! Res ipsa loquitur! It’s self-evident I’m wrong, no need to explain why. 

And what we do get, in place of any reasoned argument, is a lot of insults.

Notice particularly this line: “How the heck has the humanist society tolerated this blowhard for so long?” So he’s saying I should be blackballed. For failing a test of political correctness as decreed (though not actually explained) by Mr. Tony Milillo — who, incidentally, has never been seen at a meeting of said organization (in which I happen to fulfill three separate roles). I think the organization, which actually does adhere to the principles of humanism, including reasoned discourse, will not follow Mr. Milillo’s recommendation. 

This is why the left gets a rep for intolerance toward diversity of viewpoints. Believing in freedom of thought and expression, but only for themselves, all others be damned. Almost literally. 

Elsewhere, this same Mr. Milillo calls Joe Biden (another notorious deviant from Mr. Milillo’s catechism) “a fucking liar.” And what is the alleged lie? Biden’s comments to the effect that Republicans are human beings who can be reasoned with and who need to be kept in the fold of American society. Mr. Milillo goes on at great length disagreeing, explaining why Republicans are irredeemable. (Well, at least there’s some actual argument here.) But I’m not sure what Mr. Milillo’s solution is. Shooting them?

I’m a former lifelong Republican who hates what the party has become. But I agree with Biden that we must search for common ground. 

If guys like Mr. Milillo succeed in tearing down every voice that doesn’t gibe with their extremist hard left view, they will get Trump re-elected. Mr. Milillo’s kind of scorched-earth politics is tearing this country apart and will end in its destruction.

Plan-free fact-free anal sphincter foreign policy

May 16, 2019

Everyone before was stupid. He knows everything. Intelligence briefings, consulting experts, careful planning — loser stuff. The great deal-maker’s own great instincts alone would make America great again.

Are we there yet?

I’ve written about big-picture foreign policy — how since 1945 America’s painstaking construction of a cooperative global order has served our interests while also making a better world. And how Trump is nihilistically smashing it.

Bob Woodward’s book Fear explains that Trump likes to “fly by the seat of his pants . . . did not want to be derailed by forethought. As if a plan would take away his power, his sixth sense.” It portrays a man ruled by anger and ego, impervious to facts, incapable of focusing. For a time, adults around him struggled to forestall disaster. Now they’re all gone.

Let’s see how plan-free foreign policy is working out:

NORTH KOREA. The great deal-maker imagined just schmoozing his way to triumph. Returned from his first summit with Kim Jong Un declaring victory, problem solved, no more nuke threat. Nobel prize! Turns out (surprise) the “deal” was bullshit. North Korea agreed to nothing and continues testing missiles. Kim harvested valuable prestige at no cost. The great deal-maker has no plan.

IRAN. It took years for the U.S. and five other leading powers to negotiate a deal that would significantly slow Iran’s nuclear weapons development. Trump tore it up to replace it with . . . nothing. He had no plan. Now Iran will get a bomb sooner. While the regime hardliners, who hated the deal, are strengthened. Our allies are antagonized. And now too, with our modus vivendi with Iran shredded, there’s looming military conflict. Not a war we could “win;” almost certain to be a horrible mess and disastrous for American strategic interests.

VENEZUELA. Trump loves dictators. (Just hosted Viktor Orban who’s destroyed Hungary’s democracy.) So why not Maduro? Simple: his regime made the mistake of calling itself “socialist.”

Trump imagined pressure would cause Venezuela’s military to flip and oust Maduro. Didn’t understand the military is the regime, its leaders profiting, and terrorizing lower ranks against defections. And what about our threat of military intervention? Also sure to be a horrible bloody mess and disastrous for our larger interests.

So while loudly proclaiming Maduro must go, Trump has no plan.

SYRIA. What is the plan?

CHINA. Trade wars are easy to win? Tell that to the 1930s. What’s especially stupid is a democracy picking a trade war with a dictatorship that’s much more able to endure economic pain. Trump blundered into this battle with no plan for winning it.

He insists his tariffs on Chinese imports will be paid by China. Just like Mexico would pay for his wall. In fact American consumers will pay, through higher prices at the cash register. Estimates range up into the thousands per family. This will also mean U.S. job losses — estimated up to a million or more.

And this doesn’t count our economic damage from the retaliatory tariffs China is slapping on us.

True, our economy is doing great. No thanks to Trump’s trade war, but in spite of it. Without it we’d be doing even better. (And our prosperity actually owes far more to Obama than to Trump.) A 600 point fall in the Dow shows the market realizes how bad for us the trade war is.

Meantime, we might fare better against China if our allies presented a united front. The TPP deal would have been just that, but Trump ditched it, while further kicking our friends in the teeth, even picking trade fights with some of them too. So we’re now on our own battling China.

We do have real trade issues with China, but tariffs are not the remedy. Trump literally doesn’t understand global economics. He imagines if we buy more from China than we sell them, they’re ripping us off. No economist (except liar Peter Navarro) thinks that. If China can sell us widgets cheaper than we can make them ourselves, it’s to our advantage to buy theirs and make other things. What consumers save on widgets enables them to spend more elsewhere — creating jobs.*

ISRAEL & PALESTINIANS.  For half a century, very smart knowledgeable people couldn’t solve this. So Trump tapped son-in-law Jared Kushner, with zero relevant knowledge and experience, to create a plan. Soon to be unveiled as the greatest thing ever. Apparently it will avoid the issue of a Palestinian state. Why did no one think of that before? But meantime Trump’s pro-Israel actions have already scotched America being seen as an honest broker, so there’s no way Palestinians will buy into whatever fabulous plan Kushner concocts.

I didn’t vote for Obama and heavily criticized his foreign policy. But Obama was a foreign policy genius compared to this anal sphincter.

* Woodward’s book details how economic advisor Gary Cohn failed to make Trump see he’s screwing the 84% of our economy that’s services to benefit (a little of) the 16% that’s manufacturing. Cohn finally resigned. The book shows Trump believes trade is bad, full stop. So willfully stupid it’s insane.

Faking democracy

May 13, 2019

Kings used to rule everywhere by “divine right.” It was unquestioned. “Democracy” wasn’t even a thing. But in modern times it has acquired such universal moral force that even the most tyrannical regimes feel they must give it lip service. As in “The Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea.” It takes no fewer than three liberal-sounding words to lipstick that pig. They even pretend to “vote” in “elections.”

Is this progress of a sort? Well, at least “divine right” rulers were honest about it. Now, dictators are perfecting the art of faking democracy.

I’ve written recently how Venezuela’s regime practices democratic theater to create a potemkin fiction of popular sovereignty.

Then there’s Turkey. I’d warned that by electing Erdogan president, and then voting him untrammeled powers, they’d politically disembowel themselves. They did it anyway (probably helped by regime ballot rigging).

Yet in March elections, an opposition candidate somehow managed to narrowly win Istanbul’s mayoralty. Erdogan cried foul, claiming vote fraud — with a straight face. Then the regime-controlled electoral authority simply annulled the result, scheduling a revote (whose outcome, observers say, Erdogan will not leave to chance). The legal pretext for this usurpation was transparently phony. Meantime, in numerous other cities, elected opposition mayors have simply been kicked out, and the runners-up installed.

All this Erdogan — still with a straight face — calls a triumph of democracy.

Then there’s Thailand. In 2011, I wrote a post titled “Democracy wins in Thailand.” It was a resounding vote against anti-democratic pro-royalty, pro-military forces. But in 2014 the army stomped in and seized power. Then came the obligatory charade of a “transition” back to “democracy,” with a new constitution blatantly stacked to keep the military chief in power. The army would even appoint the entire upper house of parliament.

The Thai king since 1946, Bhumibol, was revered to excess, supposedly above politics but giving free reign to anti-democratic palace and military intriguers, including 2014’s putschists. But he was literally uncriticizable by grace of a draconian “lese majeste” law, useful for jailing anyone, for any words construable as unflattering toward the monarchy. Bhumibol died in 2018, succeeded by Vajiralongkorn, a vile arrogant self-indulgent creep even more in bed with the military rulers.*

They’ve finally held an “election” under the new constitution, and despite every possible trick to hamstring opponents and rig the result, the military still failed to gin up a parliamentary majority. Or so it seemed — until the electoral authority simply changed the opaque formula for allocating seats, and hence the outcome. For good measure, the leader of one of the biggest opposition parties has been thrown in jail on ludicrous charges.

Then there’s America. Trump has shown his contempt for democracy. In 2016 he said he’d accept the election result only if he won. Now he thinks Congress’s subpoenas for documents and for testimony by administration officials can be simply ignored. If this is rewarded with his re-election, that will be a big step down the road toward joining Venezuela, Turkey, and Thailand, in their sham of “democracy.”

* My setting foot in Thailand would risk imprisonment for those words. Seriously. An Australian writer made that mistake. (His book had reportedly sold one copy.)

Trump escalates assault on democratic governance and rule of law

April 29, 2019

Recently I wrote about Venezuela’s slide into dictatorship. Such regimes hold elections but exploit their control to effectively deny citizens a voice.

America’s Republicans do this. There’s gerrymandering, of course, both parties do that, but voter suppression is a particularly vicious specialty of Republicans alone. And when Wisconsin elected a Democratic governor, the Republican-controlled legislature passed bills to strip the office of key powers. And in 2018 Florida passed a referendum restoring voting rights to ex-felons — but the Republican governor and legislature say, “Nothing doing.” And the Trump administration is trying to game the census to undercount Latinos, to reduce their voting power.* This travesty seems likely to be upheld by the Supreme Court’s Republican majority. (Time was, I’d bridle at such cynical partisan characterization of the court. Chief Justice Roberts might step back from shredding its cloak of impartiality. But don’t hold your breath.)

In Venezuela, the Maduro regime was so unpopular by 2015 that its vote-rigging wasn’t enough to keep the opposition from winning Congress. Which then tried to hold the regime accountable. What did Maduro do? He quite simply disregarded Congress. That’s right — whatever Congress legislated, the President ignored. (He set up another body, packed with regime toadies, supposedly superseding Congress.) Control of the courts helps Maduro get away with this.

“It can’t happen here?”

It’s happening.

Our democratic constitutional system vests various powers in Congress, to hold the presidency accountable. The House Ways and Means Committee has sent the Treasury Department a demand for Trump’s tax returns. This was done pursuant to an explicit law, it’s legally incontestable. But the White House says the returns will never be handed over. (What is he hiding?) The lawful requisition is being simply ignored. And the Trump organization is suing Congress to keep requested business records hidden too.

The White House is also telling its people to defy subpoenas for them to testify before Congress. This includes former White House Counsel Donald McGahn testifying about Trump’s lies concerning Mueller. And Carl Kline, responsible for the improper security clearances for Jared Kushner and others, that Trump also lied about. And John Gore, a Justice Department official subpoenaed to testify about the lies involved with the mentioned census manipulation.

How does Congress enforce its subpoenas for testimony and documents? By prosecutions for “contempt of Congress.” Which go through the Department of Justice. Controlled by guess who. Meantime Trump may try to assert “executive privilege,” like Nixon did regarding the Watergate tapes. The Supreme Court ruled Nixon had to turn them over. Will it reverse this precedent for Trump? We’ll see.

Remember when Republicans used to posture as Constitution worshipers? They still bang on about the law when it comes to immigration. But Trump feels his regime can — just like in Venezuela — simply ignore Congress and anything it tries to do. Cocking a snook at constitution and law.

And why not? He’s spent his whole life getting away with such shit. The Mueller investigation found he attempted to obstruct justice, yet there are no consequences. Indeed, he’s even braying exoneration. Now he feels he’s Prometheus unbound.

Democratic governance? Checks and balances? Accountability? Rule of law? Those are for chumps.

* At issue is adding a citizenship question to the census. The administration’s pretext is that the Justice Department somehow needs this to enforce the Voting Rights Act. They say this with a straight face — as if they’re not actually eviscerating the Voting Rights Act.

Biden for President

April 27, 2019

When I saw Joe Biden’s 3-1/2 minute announcement video Thursday morning, as a longtime observer of American politics I was frankly shocked. It was not what I expected; unlike anything seen before.

Please view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbOU2fTg6cI&feature=youtu.be

It is all very well to talk about health care, tax policy, jobs, and other issues. No doubt Biden will in due course. But those kinds of concerns pale in significance when America’s very soul is on the line. Biden’s powerful statement strikes to the heart of what’s at stake in 2020. What I’ve been saying for three years. No other candidate shows such incisive mettle.

It’s customary to call every election “the most important in years.” But this one truly is the most consequential, at least since 1860. I always used to know that whoever won an election, America would be all right. Not so for 2020. We stand at the hinge of history. Biden shows why.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat;

Oh, be swift my soul to answer him,

Be jubilant my feet!

Russia & Norway & Trump & Mueller & Truth

April 21, 2019

Russia has invaded Norway. That’s the premise of the Netflix series Occupied, recently reviewed here. Now we’ve started Season 2, eight months have passed and the situation is . . . the same. It does worsen, yet basically it feels like watching the same stuff just repeating.

Just like America’s political scene. Stuck in this unending psychodrama, each new episode seeming repetitive. Though it too does worsen. A year and a half to go.

This is what we tuned in for, in November 2016, and we can’t change the channel till November 2020. While our screens are filled with ear-splitting static.

Let’s cut through that and be clear about Mueller’s findings.

First, Russia did engage in a massive state-sponsored attack on our democracy. (We already knew this.) Whether it changed the election’s outcome is impossible to prove, but given its extent and the narrowness of Trump’s win, it’s obvious the Kremlin succeeded in putting its man in the White House.

Republicans — traditionally so anti-Russian — just shrug. And basically nothing is being done. Because Trump sees the whole story as a personal affront, undermining the validity of his “triumph.”

But put Russia aside.

The other story is obstruction of justice. Was Trump exonerated? No. Innocent? No. Was it a case of insufficient evidence? No. About this, Attorney General Barr’s summary and press conference were flagrantly misleading.

Mueller — based on sworn evidence and documented facts — proved that Trump, on numerous occasions, did attempt to obstruct justice. Note that the attempt, even if unsuccessful, is still a serious crime. And Trump was unsuccessful only because his orders were disobeyed.

The past two years saw much discussion of whether Trump would really cross the line and fire Mueller. Now we know he did direct his Counsel, Don McGahn to do just that. McGahn refused. (Trump is infuriated with McGahn for telling the truth.)

That’s just one point. There were others. And in addition to thusly abusing his power, to sabotage the Russia investigation, Trump (and Republicans and Foxers) have waged a two year smear campaign against not only the Mueller probe but the FBI, DOJ, and our intelligence services, as well as the press for reporting what turns out (no surprise) to be the truth, as documented in the report. This assault on the foundations of our democracy and rule-of-law continues, indeed grows even more hysterical as the evidence of Trump’s criminality mounts.

The report also makes clear that Trump’s White House is a cesspool of lies. (We already knew this too.)

Yet in spite of it all, 40% of Americans still support him. A profound sickness of our civic soul.

So why didn’t Mueller have Trump indicted for obstruction of justice? Not because the evidence was insufficient. The only reason, the report explains, was the Justice Department’s policy against indicting a sitting president. Nothing in the Constitution requires that policy. But it’s the sole reason Trump wasn’t indicted. So Mueller’s report says the responsibility now falls to Congress to fulfill its duty and act upon these crimes in the way the DOJ could not. Thus in effect Mueller recommends impeachment.

Of course, impeachment is politically impossible absent major Republican support. And Republicans are loyal not to America but only to the criminal in the White House (or are totally cowed by him).

Stay tuned for further episodes. As I keep saying: it will get worse.

Venezuela’s tragedy: lessons for America

April 18, 2019

Javier Corrales is the Dwight Morrow professor of political science at Amherst. I recently heard him give a talk about the situation in Venezuela, divided into three parts: what he called “democratic backsliding;” economic collapse; and lessons for America.

Corrales explained that the democratic decline preceded and led to Venezuela’s economic disaster. And he saw reasons for concern that the story could repeat even in well-established democracies like ours.

Corrales started with “Democracy 101.” America, in the 1700s, basically invented the modern concept of liberal democracy. (Not to be confused with the “liberalism” that’s a political orientation of some Americans.) It’s rooted in the Enlightenment, with government accountable to people, and limited, to prevent tyranny by either a minority or a majority. A key means is to divide power among different government branches to check each other, with constraints upon government as a whole to leash its authority.

For a time, after WWII, and especially after the Cold War, liberal democracy was spreading. But then came a “democratic recession” beginning around 2006. Notable cases are Turkey and Hungary, and of course Venezuela. What we see is not the “old fashioned” putsch, but something that more insidiously starts in ambiguity — what Corrales called “executive aggrandizement,” with other centers of power being neutered or co-opted. The picture may ostensibly seem at first more democratic, with a majority thinking they’re getting what they voted for.

Then the regime uses and abuses laws, and creates new ones, to make an uneven political playing field. Elections are still held, but they’re manipulated by a host of measures to produce the desired results. The ruling party becomes a rubber stamp cheering section. The opposition is demonized and delegitimized. Press freedom and public debate are suppressed.

Political scientists use a host of criteria to measure a nation’s degree of democracy. Corrales presented a graphic timeline of Venezuela’s scores. They started low, with a dictatorship until the 1950s, when they jumped to a sustained democratic plateau. Then in 1999 Hugo Chavez (a former would-be putschist) got elected president, and Venezuela’s democratic score fell off a cliff. (Corrales also displayed Cuba’s graph — basically flatlined since the 1959 Castro takeover — and America’s, starting high and rising higher through the period, but with a noticeable drop in the last few years.)

Another set of criteria encompasses all the specific ways in which undemocratic regimes subvert fair elections, and here again a detailed chart was presented for Venezuela. At the start of the Chavez era, voting was still pretty much fair. But then the regime utilized ever more of the measures on the chart, to the point where today, Venezuela’s voting is a cynical charade.

The manipulation became necessary because whereas Chavez was actually popular for a while, the regime’s popularity faded, and nosedived under his successor Maduro. This leads us to the matter of the economic disaster. Venezuela is an oil state; that is, almost all its national earnings are from oil. Chavez was the beneficiary of a big spike in the global oil price, and he used the windfall to buy off political support from the poorer classes. Then the oil price collapsed with the 2008 global financial crisis. As Warren Buffet said, when the tide goes out, you see who’s been swimming naked.

In Venezuela’s case, the regime’s economic mismanagement became tragically evident, plunging the once-rich nation into poverty, with an inflation rate measured in millions of percent, and a tenth of the 30 million population escaping to other countries. Corrales explained that Chavez not only imprudently spent all the oil windfall (saving nothing), but went deep into debt besides. While some of this profligacy did trickle down to the poor, most was frittered away through corruption and incompetence. None was allocated to investment to build the economy.

So Venezuela suffered from an unrestrained state — and that was combined with a restrained private sector. The regime’s “socialism” led it to regulate private business so as to destroy it. Thus food, medicine, and all sorts of other goods (which Venezuela, so oil-concentrated, used to import) have disappeared from the shelves. While the regime’s fiscal indiscipline brought forth hyper-inflation. It made things worse by responding with price controls and even more punitive anti-business measures.

Corrales rejected any idea that America somehow bears responsibility for Venezuela’s travail. To the contrary, he said, the U.S. actually helped finance the regime by buying its oil (now stopped). Meantime its oil income has plunged due to its mismanagement, stuffing the state oil company with political hacks.

We keep hoping Venezuela’s military will oust Maduro. After his talk, I suggested to Corrales it won’t happen because the generals too are profiting from the corrupt system. He agreed. So, I said, the only path is the opposition taking up arms and starting a war. He smiled and nodded (somewhat to my surprise). Then I added, “Some things are worth fighting for.” He smiled and nodded again (ditto).

The lessons here for America should be obvious by now. I have written about the burgeoning phenomenon of political populism (https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/what-is-populism/.) Corrales said the world’s democratic backsliding is driven by populism, defined by its perceived political betes-noires. On the left (epitomized by Venezuela) it’s anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-Americanism. Bernie-style populism inveighs against “neoliberalism,” corporations, and the rich. Right-wing populism typically demonizes the intelligentsia, elites, immigrants, ethnic minorities, and crime. For both right and left, the stomping on hated enemies can excuse the stomping on democratic norms. (Many Western lefties still defend Maduro.)

Also obvious is Trump’s following the playbook Corrales outlined: executive aggrandizement, undermining governmental checks and balances, demonizing and delegitimizing opponents and the free press. We even see election manipulation, with voter suppression. All this is how it starts. Be afraid. Be very afraid.