Illusion and Reality

238542495_21bb5b1747_oMuch has been made of the role of Trump as a divisive force in American politics.  While there is no question about Trump’s behavior, blaming Trump for divisiveness makes this seem like a one-of-a-kind personality problem.  That’s an all too common illusion.  The reality is a much bigger story.

Growing up in the post-war US it is easy to forget that democracy and rule of law are by nature fragile.  For most of human history the rich and powerful have just run things for their benefit.  Rule of law gets in the way, and those who expect to be in control tend to find that intolerable.  As has been carefully-documented, forces for oligarchy are more powerful now than they’ve been for quite some time in this country.  Growing inequality and the Citizens United decision show both the current power of those forces and their ability to get more of it.  That is today’s reality.

The facts in this piece are not new but haven’t gotten enough play.   The main reason is that the illusions in the foreground—Trump’s idiocies or the Republican Party squabbles—drown out the rest.   It’s worth going through these basics, because otherwise (as with divisiveness) it’s too easy to believe nonsense.

The major players in the game are well-known, but their clout and goals are underappreciated.  The starting point is the Koch organization and its allies.   The Koch organization channels money from ultra-rich donors into a political organization with 1600 employees and a bigger budget than the Republican party itself.   Most of their money is “dark”, passed untraceably through nominally charitable (but tightly-controlled) think tanks into Political Action Committees.  The Kochs were responsible for the Republican takeover of Congress and of the state legislatures—they focused unheard-of money on the states prior to 2010, so as to be able to gerrymander based on the 2010 census.  Citizens United showed their power in the Supreme Court—Roberts and Alito were both named via the Koch-funded Federalist Society—and the Gorsuch relationship is even closer.  Finally all of that speaks through their primary propaganda channel—Rupert Murdoch (net worth $14.7 B) and Fox News.

The stated goal is to return the US to something like the 19th century Gilded Age, where a handful of rich individuals ran the country through money and influence.  The Progressive Era, which followed and limited their control, is viewed as the start of a national decline.  Any social welfare spending or constraint on business saps the strength of the country.  Overall, a robber-baron economy even Adam Smith wouldn’t endorse.

It was recognized early-on that such a program would not be popular, so it was necessary to provide a cover.  For that purpose (as documented) they systematically created an alternative reality, developed by the think tanks, promulgated by Fox News, and represented politically by front organizations—most notably the Tea Party and Donald Trump.

Strangely, it is still not common knowledge that the Tea Party was created and funded by the Kochs.  Trump is a different story.   He was not their first choice, but with their guy Pence in the background, he proved to be an almost ideal populist mask. It’s no accident that the one major legislative achievement of the Trump administration was the passing of their tax cut.   That was not AN issue—it was THE issue, and the achievement was not Trump’s but theirs.   It signified their full control of the Republican Party.

The features of the “alternative reality” are worth describing in more detail, as they cover a good bit of our daily cacophony.  This is less a system of beliefs than a framework for propaganda:

  1. The single most important goal has been to divide and conquer the electorate by creating divisions and mutual enmities among groups. Divisiveness is not a byproduct but an explicit goal.

Racism was one starting point.   Under Obama is was easy to claim that blacks were cheating to get more than their fair share.  Large fractions of the country still believe, quite incorrectly, that the whole social welfare system exists primarily for blacks.  Even the non-Fox press does a good job of reinforcing that misunderstanding.

It was only one step beyond that to go after the past alliance of liberals and the working class.  No message has been more enthusiastically repeated on Fox News than “they hate us and think we’re stupid”.  That message is neatly aligned with racism—they dress differently, they listen to different music, they’re not us—they’re the enemy.   They stole your jobs.  Cutting them down to size is at least as satisfying as actually getting a job.  What’s more education is bad:   It just turns your kids into people like them!

Finally this all gets reinforced with fear.  This is a very dangerous country.  Blacks and foreigners are all out to get you.   You need to know who your friends are.

So discussions of divisiveness or “polarization of the electorate” are missing the point.  Much of the left is if anything trying too hard to understand where they went wrong with the working class.   The other side has been taught—intentionally and with all of Murdoch’s resources—to hate them and everything they stand for.

  1. The other major message promotes the oligarchs themselves.

Job creators are god-like figures who dispense jobs as gifts.  Growth, produced by them, is the miracle solution to all problems.  You don’t need ideas or plans, just them.

Government is corrupt and inept.   Sometimes, as with the EPA, it is actively malicious.  It makes laws that impinge on our freedoms.  It wastes money with social welfare programs for ungrateful non-white cheats.  Education is useless indoctrination.  Even the police cannot be trusted to do their job—we need more good people with guns.  And everything government does is financed with money stolen at our peril from the job creators.

So we need to cut their taxes, eliminate constraints on their behavior, and make sure they get as much of the pie as possible.  Further it turns out that all government services they don’t need (healthcare, social security, education, …) are candidates for cuts.  We just need defense and self-funded infrastructure (to go where the money is).

 

That’s where we are.   Trump and the Republicans may get all the press, but the real powers know exactly what they’re worth:  Trump is a loose cannon but easily manipulated, and the Republicans are replaceable buffoons already scared of their next primaries.

The 2018 and 2020 elections will be fought against the Koch organization and Murdoch for control of the country.   Given that democracy is on the line, the rest of us had better win.

The Foreigners Threatening America

25700577124_b9b3d89b92_kRepublicans are good at hateful, manufactured stereotypes.  “Welfare queens” worked pretty well for a while.   Now we have snobbish, nose-in-the-air elitist liberals.  They’re all like that right?  Just like shiftless blacks and Mexican rapists.  Who needs reality when you can tell who to hate based on skin-color, clothing or even the music they listen to.

Let’s get some reality.  Maureen Dodd did us a service last week with her annual piece presenting her brother’s comments from the other side of the political fence.   There was surprisingly little of substance—just breezy support for Trump’s “delivering on his promises to shake things up” and dissatisfaction with the Republican Congress for not getting the job done.  Nothing on actual policy beyond a hint of racism with the kudos to Bannon for “holding Republicans’ feet to the fire”.  All told this was another confirmation that the Trump core will follow wherever he leads.  It wasn’t different from the content of the Trump rallies or from any of the many recorded interviews with Trump supporters.   Just a reminder that after a year of Trump sell-outs nothing has changed.

It’s time to get over the white racism of the left—that the core Trump supporters are ultimately our people who need to be brought back into the fold.  They may be perfectly okay in normal life, but so were the Nazis who saw the Jews being rounded up in their neighborhoods and thought it was okay.   Fascism will do that to people.  Financial reverses plus a skilled demagogue, and reasonable, intelligent people can succumb to it.  And it’s not going to change any time soon.

It’s also clear what Trump and his supporters are doing to this country.  In their assertion of ultimate white privilege, they are undermining what has made this country great—the opportunity for everyone to succeed.  The fascist denial of objective reality is undermining US economic success, denying educational opportunity, and crippling the worldwide response to climate change.  Like Britain, we are on the way to becoming a second-rate power.  However the dangers here are worse—from another economic crash, from a war, or from our uncritical buddy-buddy relations with the Russians.

Two books in particular have shaped ideas about Trump core supporters:   Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in Their Own Land.   Both tried to be sympathetic, describing the people, their views, and their reasons.  But the second is particularly relevant because it described Louisiana—a state where they’d won.   It was a disaster of epic proportions:   an environmental catastrophe and an educational system gutted to provide tax breaks for oil companies.  The whole business kept running by tax revenues transferred from the north.

The Trump campaign liked to say the last election was the last chance to protect the country from a Latin American takeover.  We now know he may have been right—we are well underway to becoming a banana republic where the ultra-rich control everything (through Citizens United and the Koch Organization) including how little they are taxed.   Public services, including education, are not priorities.  Hannah Arendt (quoted by Michelle Goldberg) talked succinctly about the collusion between the Nazi economic elite and the fascist-inspired masses they controlled, “The temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability.”

That is what is foreign to America.   That is what must be pushed back before it is too late.

 

Big Brother

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The big story today is the Koch-financed purchase of Time Inc.  While this did make the NY Times—in a rather innocuous, long-winded article—you have to go to the Guardian to get a notion of what is going on.  There are three points:

– Most obviously this gives the Koch organization a direct mouthpiece in print media. To be clear—the Koch organization does not represent just Koch money.   It channels money from the richest people in the US and distributes untraceable billions of dollars through a political organization of 1600 staffers.   It quite literally owns the Republican party (Pence is their creation) and is the source (and explanation) for the current tax bill.

– Also this month, the FCC with its new Trump-appointed head, “eliminated protections against monopolies in local broadcast news, a move widely seen as clearing the way for the expansion of a Trump-friendly local broadcasting network”.  This is the Sinclair Media Group, which forces all local subsidiaries to broadcast centrally-prepared Trump agenda propaganda.

– Finally we have the much-discussed FCC ruling last week rolling back net neutrality.  This action has not gone unnoticed, but its impact has been discussed primarily in terms of network providers’ ability to block competitors for their own services.   In the current context however, it is equally important to recognize this amounts to oligarchic control of internet content.

So there you have it.  Print media, television, and internet all at risk of coming under control.  It can happen here.

This is it!

This is it!  Finally it’s here.

After six years of holding the country hostage (no question now about the meaning of “party of no”)—

After thousands of Fox News stories full of arrogant and nasty liberals—

After untold campaign contributions—

We finally have what we’ve waited for.   The dearly-bought gift—the tax cut, our tax cut has arrived in Congress!

 

Think about what we’ve done to get here.  First some of the ground work:

– Republican Supreme Court justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch.

– Citizen’s United—liberating our money as protected free speech.

– The unprecedented Koch organization—funded by billionaires and with a staff of 1600 and billion-dollar budgets to control state and federal legislatures.

– A full complement of Koch people (e.g. Pence, Pruitt) in Trump’s government.

 

Then our messaging with Fox News and Rupert Murdoch leading the way:

– First one fabulous job of divide and conquer.  We’ve made “liberals” even more detestable than “welfare queens”.   What a line we’ve got: “They’re laughing at us and think we’re stupid.   They’re stealing our jobs and our money.  Can’t believe a word they say.  Our team will bash their heads in when we win!”  We’ve even got real liberals apologizing for our stereotypes!  And then there’s racism…

– Next the subtler part—governments can do nothing, everything they offer is either worthless or for someone else.  There’s quite a list of things governments can’t do:  education, social services, medical care, even police (we just need “good people with guns”).  Funny thing about all those wastes of taxpayer money—they’re things we’re already doing for ourselves.

– Finally a bit of warm and fuzzy nonsense.  Jobs are gifts from corporations and rich people.   Make us rich and we’ll take care of you!

Sounds like a tax plan.

 

And look now at what we’ve got.  Let’s count the tax cuts:

– Estate tax.  Only helps families with at least $10 M to pass on.  Worth $1 B for Trump himself.   Just for us.

– Tax rates.  The top bracket is down to 35%, but that’s just the beginning.  We’ll really get 25% with the new passthrough loophole (our lawyers will certainly take care of any fine print).

– Corporate tax rates.   We’ve got the clout to get most of this as dividends or stock repurchases.

– Deficits.   That’s a particularly good one.   Those nonsensical growth predictions are just one more piece of the pie.  The deficits will mean cuts in services and correspondingly lower taxes going forward!

It’s actually marvelous how this has worked out.   We’ve got a tax cut before there’s even a real budget!  Exactly the way the world should be.

 

Where is all this going?  Funny you should ask.   There’s an article in today’s NY Times talking about it.   It seems Mexico is actually doing something right.   They’re not wasting money on parasites.   People like us live in walled communities with their own security and service.  Some of it they pay for, and the state does the rest. And they pay practically no taxes!  The world as God created it!

 

The tax cut has come.   We are saved.

Strange Revisionist History

You can almost call it a conspiracy.   The right and the left have decided to rewrite the history of the last election in remarkably similar ways:

The Right:  The election was a thumping rejection of everything liberals stand for.  The public was finally given the opportunity to say so, and it rejected the administrative state and all its policies, both foreign and domestic.

The Left:  The election was a thumping rejection of centrism and its coddling of the right.  Trump’s core voted for him, because the Democrats have become too close to Republicans in outlook.  Other traditionally Democratic constituencies either went to Trump or didn’t vote for the same reason.   The only way to save the country is for the party is to return to its ideological roots on the left.

For starters, one of the most outrageous events in the history of the United States has disappeared from the narrative—the FBI’s deliberate effort to throw the election.   They got away with it, and we may never know what was behind it.   What’s more, of all the elections in recent history, this has got to be the one least fought on the issues.   By all reports, Hillary Clinton’s emails were the only subject on the news for the last two weeks prior to voting.  In fact one of the many national myths that died in this election was the place of truth in our much-vaunted free press.  Finally the Trump phenomenon itself has been whitewashed out of existence.

This is not a trivial matter, because it affects where we as a country go from here.  What follows is a quick summary (from the outside) of what the election was about and what conclusions should be drawn from it.

 

The basic story of this election was simple.  The Clinton campaign tried to make Trump’s character the major issue in hopes of attracting bipartisan support.  Other specific issues came out primarily during the debates, where she was successful (Clinton won the first and third, and tied the second), but not so often after the debates were over.  The focus on character seemed to work well at first, in particular with the discovery of the Trump sex tape.  But it was undermined by the (unsupported) innuendo of the first FBI letter—she was just another crook.  By then it was too late to change tactics, because the press was obsessed with her emails.  More innuendo in the second FBI letter sealed the deal.

For Trump voters this election was a religious experience.  For the rest Clinton’s emails were the issue.  Republicans now voted Republican, the effect of the Russian leaks was amplified, Sanders voters and misogynists had their fears confirmed, and the belief that Clinton would win made for general Democratic complacency.   With the character issue gone, too many people bought Trump’s simplistic economics—“he’s a businessman, I’ll make a buck” or else just didn’t vote.   One example statistic—at Penn State less than half of students registered prior to the election actually voted.  In swing states Clinton lost 4.5 percentage points of advantage in the two weeks following the FBI letter and lost the election by less than 200,000 total votes in four states.  This was so close that even Jill Stein was significant in most of them. (See here for a detailed discussion of factors influencing the election.)  Republican control of Congress was another side of the same coin.

It remains to talk about the Trump phenomenon.   Donald Trump is a demagogue outside the limits of what either party has produced in the recent past.   He is a professional huckster and promised salvation.  He created scapegoats and whipped up his audiences so that they were ready to kill. You can argue that Democrats should have done more for his target population (although the Republican Congress essentially shut down the government for six years), but in the election no honest proposal would have competed with Trump’s lies.  Demagogues are a real problem in a democracy.  A chilling thought is that in Athens, our original model for democracy, once they elected a demagogue it was never possible to go back.

 

This is not to deny that the Clinton campaign made mistakes, but that wasn’t why she lost.  This is my list, always easy after the fact:

– Excessive focus on Trump’s character.  I would have liked more issue-oriented ads.  People needed to understand the reasons to fear Trump’s “change”.  (But that would have complicated a non-partisan appeal.)

– Handling the FBI letters.  Clinton should have taken the high ground—welcomed the examination of her letters as a way to settle the email issue once and for all.  Contrast with Trump’s taxes.  (But the innuendo was still there, and at the time no one could believe that the FBI itself was corrupt.)

– Despite Trump’s comment, Clinton wasn’t nasty enough.  She and the Obamas liked to say “when they go low, we go high”.  This was not a time for class.  She should have gone after Trump as a businessman, with testimonials from the people who denied him financing.  At the end of the campaign Clinton talked about bringing the country together; Trump talked about locking her up.

– Countering Trump’s tweets.  This is a strategy problem going forward.   Tweets seemed to keep Trump on people’s minds much better than traditional grass-roots organizing.

– Top-down campaign.   As canvassers we were told not to change a word of the canvassing scripts, and there was little interest in our impressions of the voters’ concerns.  Trump’s people had ears to the ground.

 

Some Conclusions

– This was not a campaign on the issues, and we shouldn’t pretend it was.  There was no mandate to take the country to the land of the alt-right, and also no proof that the Democratic Party does or doesn’t need ideological changes.

– A major influence on this election was corruption in the FBI—an unimaginable failure of our criminal justice system—and we had better worry about what that says.  The concern is not just for elections but more generally how governments can use the FBI against opposition.   (Anyone who questions the corruption should reread the Comey letters. There have been many explanations of why the letters were written, but none explain the carefully crafted—and unsupported—”she’s a crook” innuendo.)

– The core Trump supporters are not going to change allegiance any time soon regardless of what we propose.  They’ve been promised salvation, and they’ll wait a long time for it.   As one book on group violence puts it, fanatical allegiance may grow out of economic issues, but once it gets going it has a life of its own.  We should understand their problems,  but they’re not going to help in 2018.

– Not all Trump voters are the same.  Those is a good chunk of traditional Republicans who were given a reason to ignore what he is.   Those people are harder to get now that they voted for Trump, but they’re not like the Trump core.  For 2018 if they are worried enough—and they ought to be even on economic grounds—they will come.

– Many things had to go wrong for Democrats to lose this election, starting with the FBI.  The election was so close, just about any one of them effectively decided the vote.   Here is one list:

– First FBI letter

– Russians and Wikileaks

– Misogyny

– Bitter Primary fight

– Second FBI letter

– Obama’s decision not to mention the Russian investigation of Trump

– Belief that Clinton would win (further suppressed vote)

There is no question that an inclusive Democratic party can win.  The biggest issues going forward are voter restrictions (Kobach) and gerrymandering.

– We should not take this election as proof that we need to remake the Democratic Party based on what made Trump successful.  Trump won by lying, not because he had a better solution.  What we do need to do is be preemptively sensitive to all constituencies who have problems.   By the time there is a Trump in the picture he will be hard to beat.

– We have a responsibility to address the problems of Trump core voters, and those problems are both hard and pervasive.   Trump’s win is clear evidence that this is fertile ground for demagogues (here and elsewhere).  It is a real challenge to develop workable, salable economic policy.

– Finally, on a more mundane level, there is clear evidence that campaigns have changed.  The effectiveness of Twitter shows we need to go back to first principles about what works.  This has become a scary, high-tech business, and we had better be sure we’re equipped for the fight.