Friday, September 30, 2016

Insanity



You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.
Eric Hoffer 1902-1983



This Presidential election cycle begs the question of whether the American public has become dumber or, more charitably, more cynical about elected officials, or even how we select our leaders.

On the one hand, the democrats have fielded a whip smart woman, perhaps too smart, a veteran of many years of public service, the wife of a former President, a former US Senator, a Secretary of State with impeccable academic credentials, a speedy and learned individual who invites vitriol from her opponents, adulation from her supporters, and intense scrutiny from a 24 hour unrelenting news cycle, but with a penchant for secrecy.    Some of our past Presidents had secrets also, including some of the great ones.  Franklin Roosevelt, who kept his severe health problems and paralysis under wraps and later on during the final years of World War II his skyrocketing blood pressure and heart failure, ultimately to kill him.  JFK kept his Addison's disease secret as well as his addiction to painkillers and women.   They and many other Presidents did not have to deal with CNN and FOX News and Matt Drudge. On the other hand, Donald Trump has to deal with a retinue of bloodhounds and his faults have become readily apparent to all who choose to see him for what he is.  The facts are out there for Hillary also.

In 1861, the newly elected Abraham Lincoln snuck into Washington in a disguise, and changed trains in Baltimore fearing that angry southern sympathizers would assassinate him.   In the years leading up to his election, Senators and Congressmen battled each other in the capitol, beating each other on the head with canes or whatever else was handy over the issue of whether states should be admitted to the Union free or slave. Lincoln himself bore ideas about the racial inferiority of black men, and even supported their migrating to a colony in Africa.  The essential point at the time was not slavery, but the balance of new states entering the Union as free or slave.  The dichotomy, if you will, of two clashing economies and more importantly, two different cultures. One agrarian and one industrial.  The two were incompatible.  We can draw some parallels from this lesson of history.  Now America is faced with four other cultures: the relevantly educated and the unskilled, the religious and the increasingly secular.   The theory that if one is born into great wealth,  they will remain in this caste system.  Those who wish to protect the status quo are delusional.   People who are disabused of the notion that they can succeed when they cannot without more education, more relevant skills by voting for a quack will find no answer.   Those who fight inclusiveness in our society of Twitter, Facebook and an incessant news cycle are tilting at windmills, and not the ones that are generating power.  The religious are confronted with supporting a man with no religious values because they perceive Hillary as abortionist lying she-devil.  The religious right is seeing their society disintegrate before them, lost to a secular tidal wave.

Polarization is rife.

150 years ago, Lincoln had engaged in a series of debates with Stephen A. Douglas over slavery and the composition of the expanding Union, which had just stolen mucho land from the Mexicans (who else?). This debate was settled by an enormous bloodletting and 700,000 dead, mangled and maimed. No other war in our history was so costly in blood and treasure.  No other war cast brother against brother, family against family.   Lincoln, in his speech at Cooper Union, before his election, had emphasized that the nation could not permanently endure half slave and half free.  Southerners knew where he stood.  The Lincoln-Douglas debates settled that ending in civil war.

History repeats itself. Now our culture war roils between the rich and the increasingly disappearing middle class.  Between the coasts and the heartland.  Between the educated and the not.  Between a new melange of white, colored, brown, and yellow. Between angry white religious fundamentalists and a country which virtually overnight embraced gay marriage and LGBT rights.   Things are happening very fast, perhaps too much so.  Cultures need time to adjust.

The middle class is the lifeblood of America.  The class that built the great factories that produced 303,000  airplanes between 1939 and 1945 a  to win the war.  The class that once enjoyed a car, a home and the implied promise of the benefit of hard work paying off with the thought that its children would have a better life if it worked hard and obeyed the rules seems a distant cry, a despairing denouement to the American dream.  Is this class inevitably succumbing to the existentially threatening global forces of cheap labor, robotic manufacturing and technology?  Some think not, that people can be retrained to do more skilled work; some think that we can restore our economy to where it was 50 years ago, or at least tell people it can to get elected.  Others think that we can resolve the deep seated education deficit of children who cannot read, cannot do math, and certainly cannot do computer coding.  Poor people watch television and think that the life on reality tv will be theirs for the taking.


Trump says that coal miners are going to get their jobs back.   They will not.   Trump says that increased tariffs on imported goods will create new jobs in America.  Respected economists think otherwise.  They think that Trump's plans will throw our nation into a new recession, making goods more expensive to buy and making it harder for the poor to survive.Trump's prevarications and salesmanship, reminiscent of PT Barnum, appeals to a large segment of American voters. He stands outside his carnival tent beckoning people to come in with a disingenuous siren call.  His character is well demonstrated by his behavior.

On the other hand, sometimes character is not the sine qua non of a politician. Many of such individuals who have succeeded for a little while, but then have fallen victim to their own hubris.   Some of them have been Presidents of the United States.  Richard Nixon, for example.  Nixon perverted the constitution, created an enemies list, broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, covered it all up and lied about it.  He ultimately fell because of his own paranoia.   He secretly taped oval office conversations and they incriminated him.   Lyndon Johnson did as well.  But Nixon opened the door to China and Johnson passed monumental civil rights legislation, Medicare and transformed the lives of millions of Americans.   Lyndon was crass also, he did not have the patrician elegance of FDR or Jack Kennedy, but he sure knew how to work with congress.

Throughout the 1930s, during the great depression, in the years leading up to World War II, America firsters fought against immigrants and other perceived threats from abroad.  People lined up at soup kitchens, pitched tents on the Mall in Washington, and General MacArthur brought in troops to evict them.   These were far from pleasant times.   Trump claims that our country has never been in worse shape.  Coal miners will get their jobs back and a wall will keep rapist Mexicans away from our women, believe me.  The nation is not in as terrible shape as he says.  We have been through much worse.   Could the Republic survive a Trump Presidency?  Probably.   But we could also survive bubonic plague.  Why bother?

Our history has played host to other demagogues--Huey Long, Father Coughlin, George Wallace, among others. who preyed on fears and the psychology of victimhood.    They were going to cure everything and no one else could.  Wallace claimed that the south would never desegregate.  Passions inflamed by these predators harmed our country by invoking a primitive tribalism that should have been rejected long ago, but has now been reawakened by Donald Trump.  He even appeals to evangelicals, who are in a real dilemma.   Vote for the evil abortion supporting Hillary, or Donald Trump despite his three wives, misogyny and his own serial infidelity.  He has sent out his surrogates. Chris Christie, the GW bridge facilitator, Newt Gingrich, married thrice, and who informed one of his wives, suffering from cancer that he was leaving her while she was in her hospital bed.  And let's not forget Rudy Gulliani, who called a press conference to inform the public that he was getting divorced without even telling his wife, Donna Hanover.   These surrogates now threaten to expose Hillary to the slings and arrows of Bill's unfaithfulness.   Good luck with that strategy.

The first Presidential debate matched an experienced, polished politician against an unprepared vulgarian. Surprisingly, Americans, judging from the polls, are not dramatically changing as a result of Hillary Clinton's superior performance.   People are prognosticating that Trump will be better prepared for the next debate.   According to Tony Schwartz who ghostwrote "The Art of the Deal," Trump has an attention span  of 30 seconds, so his next performance, if that be true, will be no better than the last.  Will people still be fooled by his bombast? Will the American voter overlook Hillary's perceived untruthfulness and secrecy be convinced that she is the lesser of two evils?  Or will they understand that her length of time in the public eye lends itself to exaggeration of her flaws.  Because no one inhabits that space of perfection, (except Donald).

How can we elect a man who wants to "renegotiate the national debt,"  (as though it were a shopping mall)  have the Mexicans pay for his wall,  encourage nuclear proliferation, cozy up to Vladimir Putin, not release his tax returns, evince secret plans on how he will defeat ISIS, deport 11 million immigrants, start a trade war with China, blow Iranian ships out of the water, call our military a "disaster," punish women who want an abortion, disband a health care program that now has 30 million signed up, call women pigs and slobs, fat-shame a former Miss Universe contestant, have a history of  discriminating against African Americans and other minorities, know nothing about economic policy or foreign policy, scrapping 70 year old NATO alliances that has kept European peace under an American unbrella if they do not pay more to us, talk about winning as a function of his own ego, stiff his workers and go through serial bankruptcies, and says "that is business," complain about roads and infrastructure, but pay no taxes?  "That makes me smart," he says.  Other endearing items include bullying, coarseness, and even embarrassing his own political party.  Many leading conservatives have abandoned him including George Will, Bill Kristol and Colin Powell.

The question that must be asked is why are his poll numbers so high if he is so clearly unqualified to be President?   Is it because Hillary is perceived as untrustworthy? Is it because we are failing as a nation? Are we in decline?  Is it the dumbing down of the electorate?  Is it the fact that people are uninformed?  Are we suckers for a candidate whose positions are not worth a warm bucket of spit?
Is it that the world is transitioning to a different economy?  Is it the loss of innocence?  What about the disintegration of a respect for intellect? People who run for office are told that they must communicate on a 5th grade level to reach the electorate.  Donald does that very well.  Why do people fear elites?  Elites founded our nation.Why is our discourse sunk so low? 

Most importantly, what are the reasons that gave rise to such an unqualified candidate?  We need to learn the truth.

Disconcertion over these issues is not easy to overcome because it is a reflection of where we are as a society.  Are we less racist?  Are we more tolerant? Have we lost all sense of reason?
Or is it that the public is incurably stupid? 


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Travails of a Permanent American Presidential Campaign


Insanity:  Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein

August 2016.

Late August in Vermont.   The trees are beginning to show a touch of yellow, very slight, not yet beginning to turn.     Some of the leaves have fallen, still green but barely hinting of the cold, short days to come. The swimming pool, heated to 75 degrees is less than I am used to, but still, refreshing after a walk on verdant mountain trails that meander up and down, their steepness growing each year.

Donald Trump has shed his campaign manager, Paul Manefort, a robotic, dyed-hair martinet, who apparently has failed in his attempt make Donald appeal to the broad center of American voter.  When only 9% of voters has chosen the Republican nominee, there are many more votes that will be counted in the general election. And as discussed below, the Ukrainian-Putin connection having funneled money to Mr. Trump’s ex-consigliere.

Trump, according to Washington Post, has decided to run his campaign on the same basis as he ran his primary campaign and has selected a Breitbart executive Steve Bannon, to be his new campaign manager.  Bannon is noted, according to the Post's EJ Dionne,  having made a laudatory documentary of Sarah Palin, of all people, as a model for anti-establishment politics.  The crux of this strategy is to appeal to the same angry white uneducated segment of the population to create more damage and negativity toward Hillary Clinton.  And, for sure, letting Trump be Trump.

Waxing philosophically about this campaign is difficult because it requires a cynical perspective on the intelligence of the American electorate.

Stage left: Vladimir Putin championing Trump, since he will clearly, if one is to believe him, wreck the NATO alliance, because our allies are not paying "their fair share."   Seventy years of American diplomacy going down like the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City is one of the most dangerous policy proposals ever advanced by any American politician since Jefferson Davis.  As we all know by now ad nauseum , a litany of other proposals, the wall, the Mexicans paying for it, the deportations, the fearmongering, the appeal to tribalism, the ethos contrary to the American promise, etc. etc. etc.

September

Returning to a steamy Miami, paranoia about mosquitos,  we have since learned that Manefort was linked to Ukrainian money, further discrediting Trump's claim that he is less corrupt than Hillary. Trump already owning the field in Washington Post Pinocchios, even with Hillary’s deservedly less than forthcoming reputation, including the email scandal as well as 40 years of being accused of non-existing sins. 

Herein we see the flaw of the 25th amendment.  The President could have easily won a third term.  A scandal free administration, an exemplary President, thoughtful and considered, but hated for his being black by a large segment of the electorate.  A stark reminder of how fragile our democracy is and how susceptible it is to demagoguery.

Even if Hillary wins this bedraggled campaign, one wonders if anything will be settled, unless the Democrats gain control of congress.   Republican obstructionism has prevented many worthwhile Obama initiatives from succeeding.   For example, a constitutional amendment that limits spending in Presidential campaigns would never pass the Republican house, even if the President proposed it.  Already Ted Cruz is gearing up for 2020, sensing a Hillary landslide. 

Hillary has just rolled out her new 757 aircraft in which she can transport the press in the same plane, proclaiming her unmitigated joy in having journalists share her multi-million dollar ride.    Billions spent to elect a president.  Insanity.

And then there are the endless emails, pontificating how Hillary needs help in defeating a person as odious as the Donald.  “Give now to save our democracy,” pleads every other new email.

Why it is necessary for candidates to office at any level money-grub their way along the trail?
There is certainly no guarantee that superior office holders emerge from an unseemly level of servitude created by the reception of such funds.

The system, which now binds Americans to perpetual campaigns anachronistically created by our past has no reason to exist.  Why do we have to start in Iowa?  Why do senators have to neglect their jobs running for office for two years?  Why are there battleground states in a silly electoral college that was originally established in the 18th century to ensure the balance of power among slave and free states?   Why are congressionally gerrymandered districts not against the law?  Why is there not direct popular vote election of the President?  The Federal system of government is not threatened by that.   No one is advocating abolition of the congress.

Our system would not be harmed by a national open primary for President.  One person one vote. Voting across party lines.   Federally funded national debates and television interviews.   A true Oxford Union format debate where each issue is advocated by the candidate, for example, "Resolved: that we should have a carbon tax" or “Resolved that taxes should be raised on incomes above $250,000."  You get the picture.   Then each candidate can expound, as did Lincoln and Douglas.   No stupid gotcha questions such as "why do you treat women like pigs?'  And please CNN, FOX, CBS, NBC, etc.  Shut the f**k up.  Present some news instead of bits of information and reasons for catheter ads.  No young people are watching anyway.

Each candidate would then get to demonstrate his or her full level of knowledge, and not continue to insult the intelligence of the public, by answering prepared sound bites for already anticipated questions. Candidates would then have to stick to the important issues and give the voter enough information to make a decision, including the candidate’s level of knowledge on each subject.

Moreover, television ads should be strictly limited to the issues, if not should be banned despite the first amendment.   A constitutional re-write is in order, governing campaigns, money, debates, advertising and lobbyists. The Citizens United case should be dumped as was Dred Scott.  Both decisions are shameful.

Otherwise we will continue to suffer hamstringed government unable to do anything except have politicians continually run for office.  If America is polarized as much as people say, this guarantees a majority unable to exert its will.   This is a result of the slave/free state dichotomy created at the inception, and not yet negated, through civil war, civil rights movements and other national paroxysms of pain and tumult.

One source suggested, (I forget who) a board of historians to guide policy, so that the lessons of the past are not repeated, and because people forget that repeating the same failed policy is insanity.