Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Masque of the Orange Death

The red death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal -- the madness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were incidents of half an hour.

But Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his crenellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts.

They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death."

"The Masque of the Red Death," by Edgar Allen Poe.
"Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?"

"No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine."

– Donald Trump responding to a reporter on 1/22/20, the first of many times he minimized the risk of the coronavirus.
Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They're politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, 'How's President Trump doing?' They go, 'Oh, not good, not good.' They have no clue. They don't have any clue. They can't even count their votes in Iowa, they can't even count. No they can't. They can't count their votes. One of my people came up to me and said, 'Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia. That didn't work out too well. They couldn't do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they've been doing it since you got in. It's all turning, they lost, it's all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know, we did something that's been pretty amazing. We're 15 people [cases of coronavirus infection] in this massive country. And because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that.

Donald Trump ridiculing concerns about the coronavirus to his supporters at a South Carolina rally, 2/28/20.
"Dr. Fauci said earlier this week that the lag in testing was in fact a failing. Do you take responsibility for that, and when can you guarantee that every single American who needs a test will be able to have a test? What's the date of that?"

"No, I don't take responsibility at all."

Donald Trump responding to a reporter, 3/13/20.

– A Donald Trump tweet on 3/22/20, one of several statements he's made in opposition to health experts and stay-at-home measures.

(I'm hardly the first or only person to make the Poe connection – it's been on several people's minds, and Driftglass has been citing the story for years.)

Trump cares much, much more about public adulation than human lives. We saw it with his inept response to devastation in Puerto Rico and lashing out at those who contradicted him, we saw it with his misstatements and then lies about Hurricane Dorian, and we've seen it throughout his entire handling of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration is doing to the United States what the Bush administration did to Iraq.

In 2018, Trump closed the U.S. "pandemic office," despite its value for precisely this type of crisis. Trump has repeatedly tried to cut the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health agencies, although Congress has blocked his efforts. Job vacancies and inexperience throughout the Trump administration haven't helped, either. Trump's team was briefed about pandemic threats before he took office. The Trump administration received multiple warnings about a major pandemic threat since January. Yet Trump has consistently downplayed the coronavirus threat, ignoring health experts even in his own administration.

Trump has styled himself as a "wartime president" for his pandemic response, but the concocted mantle is just characteristic self-adulation with little to show for it. Trump pawned off the coronavirus task force to Vice President Mike Pence, then apparently became jealous of the attention Pence was getting. Trump invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) but long refused to actually use it, even though the law lets the government tell private companies to produce critical supplies that are sorely in need, such as masks and respirators. Trump's opposition to using the law despite pleas to do so seemed partially based on conservative dogma but also the usual corporate influence. As of this writing, after significant criticism, Trump has finally used the DPA to order ventilator manufacturing from General Motors, which is a start, and we'll see if this trend continues. (In the meantime, Trump and his surrogates have gone after the governors for insufficient public praise; Trump has insisted, "I want them to be appreciative. We’ve done a great job.")

Trump has also insisted on calling the disease "the China virus" and protested the term is not racist, even as hate crimes against Asian-Americans increase. Other members of his administration have used the terms "Kung-flu" or "the Wuhan virus," and even scuttled a G-7 statement by insisting on their terminology.

Predictably, Trump has continued his staggering record of lying and bullshitting with harmful lies to the public about the coronavirus, many due to his habit of making up the reality he wants at the moment. His sycophants at Fox News and other conservative outlets have cheered him on despite his bad information. If that weren't enough, conservatives have also attacked Dr. Fauci, an actual expert giving good advice. Trump has even bragged about "tremendous testing" in the U.S., even though anyone with the slightest grasp of reality knows that American COVID-19 testing is still dangerously scarce, far, far below the demand, and woefully behind that of many nations. In fact, as of this writing, a Seattle NPR station "will not be airing the [Trump] briefings live due to a pattern of false or misleading information provided that cannot be fact checked in real time." Trump cannot get through a single unscripted press conference without being petty and narcissistic, even about softball questions, and recently said governors "have to treat us well." It's one of his trademark threats; anyone who doesn't suck up to him should suffer. (Update: Trump has admitted he's told Mike Pence not to call governors who aren't sufficiently "appreciative." Suck up, or your constituents, the American citizens Trump is supposed to serve, will die.)

Besides masks and other protective gear, what hospitals need most are ventilators to help the most critical COVID-19 patients breathe. The U.S. has about 160,000 ventilators, far short of what experts think the nation will need – estimates differ, but one projection estimates America might need 960,000. The U.S. also lacks trained personnel to use the machines. Anyone's who's followed the pandemic news from credible sources knows that the lack of ventilators is a huge problem that could significantly increase the death toll in the U.S. and around the world. But despite his conceits that he is leading the pandemic response and doing a great job, Donald Trump apparently is not "anyone." His administration balked at paying for ventilators (before a partial reversal), but Trump also questioned their necessity:

In an interview Thursday night, [3/26/20], with Sean Hannity, the president played down the need for ventilators.

"I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,” he said, a reference to New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appealed for federal help in obtaining them. "You go into major hospitals sometimes, and they’ll have two ventilators. And now all of a sudden they’re saying, 'Can we order 30,000 ventilators?' "

Of all the astounding Trump statements, this one may be the most shocking and infuriating. Was Trump in a coma the past three months? Has he been sleeping through every briefing or staring at himself in the mirror when medical experts have explained the situation? Is he an imbecile? Does he have dementia? He honestly thinks a hospital in a major city can treat the COVID-19 pandemic with just two ventilators, despite the statistics on COVID-19 cases and deaths? He rejects out of hand the advice of experts based on a fleeting whim – or to spite a perceived political rival – or due to the extensive medical knowledge he's obtained by pulling it out of his ass? This is deadly narcissism.

Trump simply will not acknowledge any reality he doesn't like, and he expects others to play along. On 3/17/20, Trump lied and even tried to gaslight the public, claiming, "I've always known this is a real, this is a pandemic. I've felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic." Likewise, his allies at Fox News pivoted 180 degrees and went from downplaying the virus like Trump to acknowledging its seriousness, as chronicled by The Washington Post:

More recently, Trump has been pushing to end stay-at-home measures, claiming the nation would suffer dire economic harm otherwise. Trump has said he'd like to end the safety measures by Easter (4/12/20), in opposition to all sound expert medical advice, apparently due to pressure from family members and doctrinaire conservatives.

So far, the stages of coronavirus response from Trump and his allies have been:

1. It's not a threat.

2. I said it was a threat all along.

3. It's only a threat to the little people. Who cares if your grandmother dies? I need to boost my slumping stock portfolio.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses severe challenges for months to come and could remain a problem for years, with a vaccine likely 12 to 18 months away and no actual cure for the contagious and sometimes deadly disease. That alone should keep us all mindful and spur those with power to try to help by all available means, and to invent new methods of aid. But the delusional incompetence of the Trump team and the 'expendable grandmother' mindset could make everything nightmarishly worse.

Texas' Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick claimed that "lots of grandparents" would be willing to die to preserve America, by which he meant the stock market. Brit Hume defended Patrick's remarks, calling them "entirely reasonable." Glenn Beck urged older Americans to go back to work and claimed, "I'd rather die than kill the country." Several billionaires have expressed similar sentiments, including Tom Golisano:

The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people. I have a very large concern that if businesses keep going along the way they're going then so many of them will have to fold. . . . You're picking the better of two evils. You have to weigh the pros and cons.

("Real" talk, from people unlikely to suffer the consequences of their callous idiocy.)

Likewise, some investment banks are pressuring medical companies to raise prices to increase their profits during this crisis. (The notion that they are killing their potential customers does not seem to have occurred to them.) Pharmaceutical companies have largely gotten their way in Congress to put profits first, mostly due to Republicans. At least one drug company has been publicly shamed into rejecting a ridiculous and potentially dangerous sweetheart deal, and perhaps public pressure can continue to spur corporations to renounce evil.

Speaking of which, congressional Republicans have continued their tradition of being cartoonishly evil, proposing a 500 million dollar slush fund to be controlled by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who could also hide the names of the companies he gave to for up to six months. (Perhaps some Trump companies or Trump allies would be included?) To add to the farce, Trump declared that "I'll be the oversight." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, ever shameless, attacked Democrats for opposing the bill while fighting against the public interest. Oh, and some members of the Republican Party (which sadly has been the party-before-country-party for decades) were likewise shameless enough to argue that some unemployment measures were too generous and could make workers too uppity. (This mindset is likely also why the Trump administration is cutting food stamps.) The Democrats did fight for and won some good measures in the two trillion dollar stimulus package under consideration, but David Dayen has described it as "robbery in progress" (and has some more details here; Digby highlights another provision open for abuse).

Rulers often use a crisis as an excuse to grab power and make corrupt deals – the Trump EPA is suspending environmental laws at the behest of the American Petroleum Institute and the Trump Justice Department has asked for emergency powers that could include suspending habeas corpus. These are classic shock doctrine moves; the Republican track record does not inspire confidence and U.S. conservatives are significantly more evil than many of their international counterparts (although they almost always seem to get a pass for it).

Like Prince Prospero in Poe's story, Trump the Orange One and other conservatives in power believe that they will survive the pandemic unscathed. They've become more cavalier about expressing their true views: that other people simply matter less, and that they're happy to let other people suffer and die for their own benefit. They are too dumb, selfish, greedy and short-sighted to realize that the same fate could befall them, or that killing off their customers and fellow citizens might not be a good long-term plan. The U.S. conservative reaction to this pandemic is basically the same as their reaction to climate change – ineffective, full of denial, and focused on profit and personal gain at the expense of all the people of the world – but for COVID-19, the deadliest consequences have been accelerated, and will be hitting hard in days, weeks, and months instead of years and decades from now.

The dominant form of U.S. conservatism is essentially neo-feudalism: those born to privilege are inherently better, and can rule over the masses. If you choose the right parents or suck up to the right lord or corporation or institution, you might live pretty well or even extravagantly, but the vast majority of the populace will have far less opportunities and likely a markedly lower quality of life. The U.S. is the wealthiest nation in the world, and the richest could still remain obscenely wealthy without seeking to increase the inequities of wealth and power as conservatives and the Republican Party consistently do. Our current, messed-up system is a choice. Although decent people exist who self-identify as conservatives, it should be blatantly clear by now that the dominant strain of American conservatism is destructive and sometimes literally lethal, and these crappy citizens and corrupt governors should be voted out of office and kept far away from power. Republican voters saw Trump was unfit for office and voted for him anyway. Congressional Republicans saw he was unfit for office, corrupt and incompetent, yet refused to convict him and remove him from office when he was impeached. The Conservative policies are simply awful, and Trump is not an aberration of conservatism; he's emblematic.

If there's anything positive about the pandemic, besides heroic medical workers and acts of kindness and creativity and community, it's that more people seem to be realizing how many "rules" in the U.S. system are bullshit, "with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest." For instance, it should be clearer than ever that the U.S. needs good, universal health care, a much stronger social safety net, and a much kinder, compassionate and supportive society. Jared Bernstein has characterized conservatism as YOYO, "You're on your own," whereas liberalism is WITT, "We're in this together." The present crisis has produced some clear insights and articulations of moral principle in that vein.

Steven Klein captures the real fear of plutocrats:

Alex Cole points out a telling contrast:

(Why, it's almost as if they always argue to benefit themselves at the moment rather than from some deeper principle.)

Alexandra Petri offers the satirical "I regret that I have but one grandparent to give for my country."

Ken Tremendous considers the flaws of the conservative "let people die" proposal in terms of the trolley problem.

Scott Lynch explains "Disaster 101":

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explains some basic humanity:

I want to make a point on the president's point about the economy and public health. I understand what the president is saying, this is unsustainable that we close down the economy and we continue to spend money. There is no doubt about that, no one is going to argue about that. But if you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it's no contest. No American is going to say, 'accelerate the economy at the cost of human life.' Because no American is going to say how much a life is worth. Job one has to be save lives. That has to be the priority. . . . My mother is not expendable. And your mother is not expandable. We're not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable. We're not going to put a dollar figure on human life. . . . We are going to fight every way we can to save every life that we can. Because that's what I think it means to be an American.

Cuomo is overly optimistic or diplomatic when he says "no American" believes such monstrous things, because sadly, we've seen that some of them do, and many of those people have power and influence. But may we hold them to account, follow higher principles, and try to help one another stay safe in these trying times from the Orange Death as well as COVID-19.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

St. Patrick's Day 2020

I hope everyone has a good and safe St. Patrick's Day. This year, I thought I'd feature the haunting version of "The Foggy Dew" performed by Sinead O'Connor and the Chieftains. Here's some background. The video has a bit of commentary at the very end.

Feel free to link or mention any favorite Irish songs in the comments.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Warren's Exit

I was disappointed that Elizabeth Warren didn't do better in the primary elections and had to drop out last week. I've been impressed with her since hearing her interviews on Fresh Air as a professor and consumer advocate before she became a senator. She was one of the few heroes in Congress fighting against foreclosure fraud and other malfeasance by big banks. Her record has been overwhelmingly positive.

As a candidate, she had many good policies, and they were more comprehensive than those from most politicians. She even adopted Jay Inslee's more detailed environmental plan after he dropped out and met with her, which was an encouraging sign about adopting better ideas and coalition building. Warren was also adept at putting human faces on policy proposals, whether it was weaving in her personal biography or talking about the people she met on the campaign trail and the struggles they were facing. Liberal and Democratic candidates often fail to do that effectively, sometimes offering fine polices and data and thinking that those policies will win on the merits alone, or failing to consider how nefarious their political opposition is. (Why, of course the Republicans will support this plan, because it's a good plan and helps their own constituents! Only a monster would oppose this! And surely they wouldn't – um, they wouldn't – uh, the Republicans voted how?) The human angle and the values driving those better policies are essential parts of explaining them to voters, and Warren consistently does that well.

She was also one of the few candidates who could talk about overall goals (such as universal health care) but also multiple possible routes to get there or at least make progress. Likewise, she was one of the few candidates who gave a good answer on Mitch McConnell and the unprecedented obstructionism by Republicans in government, who have shown they will almost always put party before country and even their own constituents, will not evaluate policies on their merits and simply will not argue in good faith. In several interviews, Warren spoke of the importance of Democrats winning back the Senate, but also explained what she could do via executive order if that didn't happen in 2020.

In contrast, some other candidates would blame "Washington" but not Republicans and conservatives, and basically were selling themselves as magic kumbaya figures who would somehow make Republicans see the error of their ways and renounce evil. (Buttigieg was particularly egregious about this as his campaign progressed, but it's also been a key part of Biden's pitch, and Klobuchar, Gillibrand and some of the early dropouts made similar if more modest claims.) Practicality is admirable, but delusion is not, and I remain wary of political figures who will not call out that conservatives and Republicans are the core problem in American politics and have been for a long time. Republicans are shameless about making false claims and manufacturing scapegoats – especially racial minorities, liberals and Democrats – while the more establishment Democrats often are afraid to call out real villainy by conservatives and Republicans. Throw in the "both sides" false equivalences that imbecilic hack pundits love and it becomes almost impossible to have an honest political conversation in many major venues ostensibly devoted to discussing politics.

I think some Democratic candidates know the real problem, but shill a weak, general condemnation of politics and offer "both sides" bullshit, which strikes me as cynical and counterproductive to long-term progress. And others are naïve enough to believe that crap, which may be worse. All – well, almost all of the Democratic candidates – condemned Trump. But of all the candidates, Warren and Sanders have pushed the strongest critiques of Republican abuses of power in government and abuses of power in general by corporations and other influential entities.

Warren might wind up as a vice presidential pick or a cabinet official. But I think being a good senator is underrated.

Here's her press conference at her house:

Here's her interview with Rachel Maddow:

Here are her remarks to her staff and supporters:

I want to start with the news. I want all of you to hear it first, and I want you to hear it straight from me: Today, I’m suspending our campaign for president.

I know how hard all of you have worked. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you for everything you have poured into this campaign.

I know that when we set out, this was not what you ever wanted to hear. It is not the call I ever wanted to make. But I refuse to let disappointment blind me — or you — to what we’ve accomplished. We didn’t reach our goal, but what we have done together — what you have done — has made a lasting difference. It’s not the scale of the difference we wanted to make, but it matters — and the changes will have ripples for years to come.

What we have done — and the ideas we have launched into the world, the way we have fought this fight, the relationships we have built — will carry through, carry through for the rest of this election, and the one after that, and the one after that.

So think about it:

We have shown that it is possible to build a grassroots movement that is accountable to supporters and activists and not to wealthy donors — and to do it fast enough for a first-time candidate to build a viable campaign. Never again can anyone say that the only way that a newcomer can get a chance to be a plausible candidate is to take money from corporate executives and billionaires. That’s done.

We have also shown that it is possible to inspire people with big ideas, possible to call out what’s wrong and to lay out a path to make this country live up to its promise.

We have also shown that race and justice — economic justice, social justice, environmental justice, criminal justice — are not an afterthought, but are at the heart of everything that we do.

We have shown that a woman can stand up, hold her ground, and stay true to herself — no matter what.

We have shown that we can build plans in collaboration with the people who are most affected. You know, just one example: Our disability plan is a model for our country, and, even more importantly, the way we relied on the disability communities to help us get it right will be a more important model.

And one thing more: Campaigns take on a life and soul of their own and they are a reflection of the people who work on them.

This campaign became something special, and it wasn’t because of me. It was because of you. I am so proud of how you all fought this fight alongside me: You fought it with empathy and kindness and generosity — and of course, with enormous passion and grit.

Some of you may remember that long before I got into electoral politics, I was asked if I would accept a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was weak and toothless.

And I replied that my first choice was a consumer agency that could get real stuff done, and my second choice was no agency and lots of blood and teeth left on the floor.

In this campaign, we have been willing to fight, and when necessary, we left plenty of blood and teeth on the floor. And I can think of one billionaire who has been denied the chance to buy this election.

Now, campaigns change people. And I know that you will carry the experiences you have had here, the skills you’ve learned, the friendships you have made, will be with you for the rest of your lives. I also want you to know that you have changed me, and I will carry you in my heart for the rest of my life.

So if you leave with only one thing, it must be this: Choose to fight only righteous fights, because then when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only one option ahead of you: Nevertheless, you must persist.

You should all be so proud of what we’ve done together — what you have done over this past year.

We built a grassroots campaign that had some of the most ambitious organizing targets ever — and then we turned around and surpassed them.

Our staff and volunteers on the ground knocked on over 22 million doors across the country. You made 20 million phone calls and sent more than 42 million texts to voters. That’s truly astonishing. It is.

We fundamentally changed the substance of this race.

You know a year ago, people weren’t talking about a two-cent wealth tax, universal childcare, cancelling student loan debt for 43 million Americans while reducing the racial wealth gap, or breaking up big tech. Or expanding Social Security. And now they are. And because we did the work of building broad support for all of those ideas across this country, these changes could actually be implemented by the next president.

A year ago, people weren’t talking about corruption, and they still aren’t talking about it enough. But we’ve moved the needle, and a hunk of our anti-corruption plan is already embedded in a House bill that is ready to go when we get a Democratic Senate.

We also advocated for fixing our rigged system in a way that will make it work better for everyone — regardless of your race, or gender, or religion, regardless of whether you’re straight or LGBTQ+. And that wasn’t an afterthought, it was built into everything we did.

And we did all of this without selling access for money. Together, more than 1,250,000 people gave more than $112 million dollars to support this campaign. And we did it without selling one minute of my time to the highest bidder. People said that would be impossible — but you did that.

And we also did it by having fun and by staying true to ourselves. We ran from the heart. We ran on our values. We ran on treating everyone with respect and dignity.

You know liberty green everything was key here — my personal favorites included the liberty green boas, liberty green sneakers, liberty green make up, liberty green hair, and liberty green glitter — liberally applied. But it was so much more.

Four-hour selfie lines and pinky promises with little girls. And a wedding at one of our town halls. We were joyful and positive through all of it. We ran a campaign not to put people down, but to lift them up — and I loved pretty much every minute of it.

So take some time to be with your friends and family, to get some sleep, maybe to get that haircut you’ve been putting off. Do things to take care of yourselves, gather up your energy, because I know you are coming back. I know you — and I know that you aren’t ready to leave this fight.

You know, I used to hate goodbyes. Whenever I taught my last class or when we moved to a new city, those final goodbyes used to wrench my heart. But then I realized that there is no goodbye for much of what we do.

When I left one place, I took everything I’d learned before and all the good ideas that were tucked into my brain and all the good friends that were tucked in my heart, and I brought it all forward with me — and it became part of what I did next. This campaign is no different. I may not be in the race for president in 2020, but this fight — our fight — is not over. And our place in this fight has not ended.

Because for every young person who is drowning in student debt, for every family struggling to pay the bills on two incomes, for every mom worried about paying for prescriptions or putting food on the table, this fight goes on.

For every immigrant and African American and Muslim and Jewish person and Latinx and trans woman who sees the rise in attacks on people who look or sound or worship like them, this fight goes on.

And for every person alarmed by the speed with which climate change is bearing down upon us, this fight goes on.

And for every American who desperately wants to see our nation healed and some decency and honor restored to our government, this fight goes on.

And sure, the fight may take a new form, but I will be in that fight, and I want you in this fight with me. We will persist.

One last story: When I voted yesterday at the elementary school down the street, a mom came up to me. And she said she has two small children, and they have a nightly ritual. After the kids have brushed teeth and read books and gotten that last sip of water and done all the other bedtime routines, they do one last thing before the two little ones go to sleep.

Mama leans over them and whispers, “Dream big.” And the children together reply, “Fight hard.”

Our work continues, the fight goes on, and big dreams never die.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I've seen a number of good postmortems on the Warren campaign, including pieces by David Dayen, Harold Meyerson and Matthew Yglesias. Ella Nilsen and Li Zhou, among others, have written about "Why women are feeling so defeated after Elizabeth Warren’s loss."

The primary race is now between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, and COVID-19 news is justifiably crowding out many other stories. But I did want to take a moment to recognize Elizabeth Warren.

(Incidentally, Warren's released and updated a good coronavirus plan, and as Digby's noted, both Biden and Sanders have given better speeches than Trump on the pandemic.)

Monday, January 27, 2020

International Holocaust Day 2020

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It's the 75th anniversary this year.

Fresh Air's episode for the occasion features two good older interviews: a 2005 one with Laurence Rees on his book, Auschwitz: A New History, and an 1988 interview with Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, who died in 2016. The PBS NewsHour segment, "The lessons of Auschwitz, 75 years after its liberation," features some survivors revisiting the camp and some striking memories. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website has an excellent primer on Auschwitz and other resources. (Going through the museum's permanent exhibit is a powerful experience.)

Although a solely historical post might be appropriate today, it feels more pressing to note current events. Hate crimes are on the rise in some areas, and the number of high-profile hate crimes in recent years is troubling. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) tracks anti-Semitic incidents. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a more general "hatewatch" page, and both organizations maintain "hate maps." FBI statistics for 2019 hate crimes aren't available yet, but the website has information from1995 through 2018, and as CNN summarizes, the 2018 report "collected data from 110 fewer agencies" but "found that 7,120 hate crime incidents were reported by law enforcement agencies to the FBI in 2018, just 55 fewer than had been reported in 2017. Between 2016 and 2017, the FBI found a 17% increase in reported incidents." Besides raw numbers, though, it's the overall efforts to intimidate marginalized groups that's disturbing.

A New York Times article from earlier this month reports that:

The number of anti-Semitic hate crimes recorded by authorities in Los Angeles has now doubled, thanks in part to those changes. But the rising numbers also mirror a trend seen in cities across the United States. A coming report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, shows that anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — the nation’s three largest cities — are poised to hit an 18-year peak.

"It is something not seen in many years," said Brian Levin, the report’s lead author, referring to the fact that Jews in those three cities are now targeted as frequently as gay men and African-Americans in hate crimes. The report, which uses the most recent official police data, found that Jews in all three cities are being targeted at the highest numbers seen since 2001. . . .

"A substantial proportion of these hate crimes involve brutal physical attacks on Orthodox Jews who are easily identifiable,” Mr. Levin said. “Today anti-Semitism and ignorance about the Holocaust has simply become broadly acceptable, and that is reflected in the increasing number of assaults and a diversity of offenders, who now also tend to be older." . . .

[During Hanukkah], a man was charged with a hate crime in the stabbing of five Jews in Monsey, N.Y., at the home of a rabbi, and a gun battle at a kosher market in Jersey City, N.J., left three people inside the store and a police officer dead.

Added to that picture of bigotry, the Trump administration tried several times to institute a "Muslim ban," a measure with dangerous historical precedents, and finally succeeded in June 2018. The ACLU, which has a good collection of personal stories of living with the Muslim ban, reports that the Trump administration is seeking to expand the Muslim ban, but also that Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi is introducing a "NO BAN Act" to reverse the Trump measures. (Not that the current, Republican-controlled Senate will approve the bill.) It's also worth revisiting Josh Marshall's July 2016 piece, "A Propagator of Race Hatred and Violence," about Trump falsely, grotesquely claiming that American Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks and the World Trade Center falling. As Marshall notes, "authoritarian figures require violence and disorder," and Trump has made other statements that are "the kind of wild racist incitement that puts whole societies in danger."

Meanwhile, at the Southern border, asylum seekers are held in appalling conditions. The America Academy of Pediatrics has repeatedly called for ending the family separation policy and for providing better care for the imprisoned children, and every firsthand report has been chilling. The conditions have been compared to theinfamous Andersonville prison camp during the Civil War and to concentration camps, by numerous people qualified to judge, including Holocaust survivors. The term itself is less important than the general dynamics; as one expert has explained:

"What's required is a little bit of demystification of it," says Waitman Wade Beorn, a Holocaust and genocide studies historian and a lecturer at the University of Virginia. "Things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz. Concentration camps in general have always been designed—at the most basic level—to separate one group of people from another group. Usually, because the majority group, or the creators of the camp, deem the people they're putting in it to be dangerous or undesirable in some way."

The awful conditions in the camps are not accidental. Trump has a long history of racism and started his campaign with a racist tirade against Mexicans. At least one of his staffers, Senior Policy Advisor Stephen Miller, is an extreme bigot and a driving force on Trump's immigration policies. As Adam Serwer has observed of the Trump administration as a whole, the cruelty is the point.

Finally, who can forget the "Unite the Right" rally of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017, an alarming demonstration that lead to the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer? Trump initially condemned the rally, but he just couldn't stick to that script, and a mere one day later, went on to claim that "there's blame on both sides" and "very fine people on both sides." Later indignant claims by Trump and his supporters that he wasn't calling neo-Nazis and other white supremacists "very fine people" were far from convincing.

Trump, his administration and his supporters are far from the only problem. The United States has never been free of bigotry – slavery, as well as the killing and displacement of Native Americans, are central to our history. Institutionalized, systemic bigotry persists even without conscious, active support. But it does feel as if some of the progress of the past several decades has been rolled back, or at least that what had been underground is now increasingly out in the open. Barack Obama and his family were subjected to an alarming amount of despicable, racist attacks. And whatever Trump and his team think of themselves, black Americans overwhelmingly view Trump as racist and white supremacists think Trump is one of their own.

Most acts of evil don't rise to the level of genocide. But genocide always has precursors, none of which are ever positive and none of which should ever go unchallenged. Some Holocaust comparisons are appropriate. Most importantly, there's never a bad time to oppose bigotry and cruelty.

Update:: The New York Times reports that the Trump administration has issued press credentials to:

TruNews, a website aimed at conservative Christians whose founder, a pastor named Rick Wiles, recently described Trump’s impeachment as "a Jew coup" planned by "a Jewish cabal." . . .

TruNews, which Wiles founded as an online radio program in 1999 called America’s Hope, has a history of spreading conspiracy theories and proclaiming an imminent apocalypse. It drew more scrutiny in November after Wiles, in an online video, accused Jews of orchestrating Trump’s impeachment.

"That’s the way Jews work," Wiles said. "They are deceivers. They plot, they lie, they do whatever they have to do to accomplish their political agenda. This ‘Impeach Trump’ movement is a Jew coup, and the American people better wake up to it really fast."

Wiles also warned his listeners that "when Jews take over a country, they kill millions of Christians."

Afterward, Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida and Elaine Luria of Virginia wrote to the White House asking why TruNews had been allowed to attend presidential events. They did not receive a response.

In contrast, the Trump administration has banned CNN in the past and Trump's state department has recently banned NPR, most likely in an act of petulant retaliation. Apparently, the Trump administration views those organizations as a threat, but nominally Christian, far-right, anti-Semitic groups are welcome.

Monday, January 20, 2020

"I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor."

It's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and given the recent and familiar saber-rattling we've been hearing, this time agitating for a war with Iran, it seems like a good time to visit King's speech, "Beyond Vietnam." He delivered it at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, a year before he was assassinated. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute has the text and audio, and it's nice to listen to his sonorous cadences. King took a significant risk in pushing back against concerns about political caution and instead spoke his conscience. Some of the references are very much tied to the era, but others remain all too timely.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides. Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans.

Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:

O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be!

Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that “America will be” are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
Digby has featured this speech before, emphasizing other good passages – it's full of them. And The New Yorker has a good piece from 2017 giving more background on crafting the speech and the political costs King knew it would incur. (It also covers John Lewis' memories of the speech.)

I appreciate that King linked war, and basically imperialism, to issues of class, race and lost opportunities in America. He received backlash for the speech, even though some passages of it are simpatico with that noted political radical, Dwight Eisenhower, who in 1953 asserted that "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." King emphasized race much more, of course, which surely made some of his white audience uncomfortable. And many of his points unfortunately remain all too pertinent.

In the questions for this election cycle's primary debates and in political chatter in general, we're essentially told that war, and all military spending, is free. According to conservatives, tax cuts and other giveaways to the rich and powerful are free as well or otherwise a national boon, and such largess will theoretically trickle down to we the peons. Apparently, it's only health care, and other domestic programs that could benefit the overwhelming majority of Americans, that cost money and need to be interrogated. Perhaps some wars are indeed necessary, yet the same people most likely to recklessly agitate for them typically argue against even the possibility of new or better social programs domestically. "I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor," said King. He wasn't fully appreciated in his lifetime, and his willingness to link the civil rights struggle to challenging other pervasive, oppressive notions is still not fully acknowledged now. As Cornel West put it, we should resist the "Santa Claus-ification" of King; it would be vanity to suppose we've already learned all he has to teach us.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Jon Swift Roundup 2019

(The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves)

(A Jon Swift picture.)

Welcome to the 2019 edition! It's been an interesting year.

This tradition was started by the late Jon Swift/Al Weisel, who left behind some excellent satire, but was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs. As usual, I'll quote Lance Mannion, who nicely explains:

Our late and much missed comrade in blogging, journalist and writer Al Weisel, revered and admired across the bandwidth as the "reasonable conservative" blogger Modest Jon Swift, was a champion of the lesser known and little known bloggers working tirelessly in the shadows . . .

One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. His round-ups presented readers with a huge banquet table of links to work many of has had missed the first time around and brought those bloggers traffic and, more important, new readers they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed.

It may not have been the most heroic endeavor, but it was kind and generous and a lot of us owe our continued presence in the blogging biz to Al.

Here's Jon/Al's massive 2007 and 2008 editions (via the Wayback Machine). Meanwhile, our more modest revivals from 2010–2018 can be found here.

If you're not familiar with Al Weisel's work as Jon Swift, his site (via the Wayback Machine) features a "best of" list in the left column.

This year, I have to mention the passing of skippy the bush kangaroo/ Gil Christner, who cofounded Blogroll Amnesty Day with Jon/Al, a blogswarm celebrating smaller blogs. Long-time participant Shaun Mullen of Kiko's House also passed away.

Thanks to all the participants, and apologies to anyone I missed. (As always, my goal is to find the right balance between inclusive and manageable.) You still can join in, by linking your post in the comments. Whether your post appears in the modest list below or not, feel free to tweet your best post with the hatchtag #jonswift2019.

As in Jon/Al's 2008 roundup, submissions are listed roughly in the order they were received. As he wrote in that post:

I'm sure you'll be interested in seeing what your favorite bloggers think were their best posts of the year, but be sure to also visit some blogs you've never read before and leave a nice comment if you like what you see or, if you must, a polite demurral if you do not.

Without further ado:

You Might Notice a Trend
"A Cruel Month for a Cruel Administration"
Paul Wartenberg: "A summary of everything dark and vicious happening under donald trump and Republican rule, and this was BEFORE all the crap about trump extorting Ukraine and things getting worse..."

Just an Earth Bound Misfit, I
"We Never Will Learn"
Comrade Misfit: "A comparison of the War Against Drugs with the War Against Ethanol (Prohibition). It points out that our great-grandparents were a lot smarter than we are."

The Way of Cats
"Cats live in the Now"
Pamela Merritt: "Cats teach me Tao every day."

Mad Kane's Political Madness
"Open 3-Verse Limerick To Donald Trump"
Madeleine Begun Kane: "My 3-verse limerick message to Trump remains unheeded, but hope springs eternal. (I include an audio version along with my written verse.)"

Strangely Blogged
"Unbearably Hostile. And Also Very Contrite"
Vixen Strangely: "A heated discussion in my blog comments lead to me to unpack my hostility towards third party voting and my fears about the upcoming presidential election."

Show Me Progress
"This morning at the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City"
Michael Bersin: "Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. As part of a grassroots organized "Everyone for Reproductive Rights" rally at the capitol in Jefferson City on June 22, 2019 pro-choice activists marched to the Governor's mansion to confront Mike Parson (r), Missouri's rabid anti-choice governor. After the speeches ended and as they left individually and in small groups activists placed wire coat hangers on the spiked cast iron fence in front of the mansion."

The Rude Pundit
"You Idiots Are Causing 'White Genocide' Yourselves"
Lee Papa: "The dumbasses who shout about "white genocide" support politicians whose policies create the circumstances for the immigration that they fear. But, well, they are dumbasses."

The Rectification of Names
"One Loopy Piehole; and Prolegomena to a Discussion of Russia Sanctions"
Yastreblyansky: "I usually submit what I think is the funniest post of the year, or the most satisfying from a literary point of view, but this year I want to focus on something different; this post starts off with a moderately amusing Fats Waller parody but goes on to one of the big things missing from the Mueller Report: the original! quid pro quo, or what Trump has done to repay V.V. Putin for his assistance in the 2016 election. Three-parter, follow the links at the end of the post."

Poor Impulse Control
"All This And No Surprises"
Tata: "Mental illness, not cancer, killed my mother."

Mock, Paper, Scissors
"Project Purple: Call It By Its Name"
Tengrain: "The "Both Siderists" tried rebranding and we’re having none of it."

[this space intentionally left blank]
"Bringing A Strongly-Worded Letter to a Knife Fight"
Dallas Taylor: "In which I answer the perennial calls for compromise and civility with a reminder that the people we're being asked to compromise with and be civil to are acting in bad faith while they hollow out American democracy in the service of authoritarian oligarchs while the climate we depend on slides further and further into crisis."

Lotus - Surviving a Dark Time
"The Erickson Report, Page 4: A Longer Look at open borders"
LarryE: "On my cable access/YouTube show "The Erickson Report," I have an occasional segment called "A Longer Look," going into some topic in more depth that a 30-minute show normally allows. This time it was on an immigration option that is rarely discussed and which may not be an answer but is surely worth considering: open borders."

"Some further ranting on culture and politics"
Infidel753: "Disengaged, low-information, pop-culture-obsessed voters aren't the ones who got Trump elected, nor are they the ones most likely to tip the scales toward his re-election. The problem lies elsewhere."

Self-Styled Siren
"Olivia (1951)"
The Siren: "It's a superb film (directed by a woman!) that truly deserves a resurrection."

David E's Fablog
"Nancy Finds Her Inner Faye"
David Ehrenstein

Bark Bark Woof Woof
"The Sting"
Mustang Bobby: "Was it enough to just impeach Trump in the House, knowing that the Senate will acquit him? No, it’s not enough. But it’s close."

"A long but thought-provoking read"
Brendan Keefe: "Some of the reactions I had to Scott Alexander's post, "New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed." "

The Debate Link
"In Relating to our Black Allies, Jews Need To Stop Being Babies"
David Schraub: "We in the Jewish community has a problem relating to our Black allies: we expect them to be condemn-antisemitism-on-demand toys, and throw a tantrum any time they want to talk about anything else. That's not a mature way to have a relationship among equals."

POST J"The Most Important Issue for Democrats in 2020? The Courts"
Jon Perr: "Republican control over the Supreme Court isn’t merely putting reproductive rights and marriage equality at risk. The increasingly reactionary federal judiciary at all levels threatens the entire legal basis for post-New Deal government."

"History of Two Weeks' Tour Through Switzerland"
Ellen O'Neill: "I went to Switzerland to visit the hometown of my maternal great grandfather. It was an unexpected bonus that I found myself walking in the footsteps of my beloved Romantic Poets, Dumas, Dickens, Twain, et. al. When I got home, I discovered Mary Shelley's own travelogue of her travels with Percy, and the post is an homage to her writing."

First Draft
"The Wind Calls Willard"
Peter Adrastos Athas: "Willard Mittbot Romney: Hero or Weathervane? It's up to him."

"The So-Called Network."
Roy Edroso: "I was sufficiently amused by Aaron Sorkin, high on his own supply, trying to talk sense to supervillain Mark Zuckerberg that I wrote my own Sorkin script for their encounter."

Special bonus post:
Roy Edroso Breaks It Down
"The bad dog"
Roy Edroso: "Our dog died last summer. Actually she was my wife's dog, but in the course of her dying I put a claim on her, which is what the post is about."

Ramona's Voices
"I Would Make a Better President Than Donald Trump"
Ramona Grigg: "A light-hearted but semi-serious look at an alternative to our first (and hopefully last) dilettante president. Trump has set the bar so low even I could do a better job. One look at my cabinet choices should cement this whole idea."

World O’ Crap
"Corner Man"
Scott Clevenger: "Scott sits down with Hall of Fame boxing trainer and Fox Sports commentator Joe Goossen to talk about the Ruelas Brothers, two young Mexican boys who wandered into his gym one day while selling candy door to door and refused to leave until he made them world champions. He didn’t want to…but he did."

Thomas Neuburger (at Down With Tyranny)
"Why Everyone in the U.S. Who Counts Wants Julian Assange Dead"
Thomas Neuburger: "By many miles my most-read post of the year, picked up on sites both left and right. The world as currently run not only wants Assange dead, they want him hated. Generating that hate is the process we're watching today. The death will follow shortly."

his vorpal sword
"Law With No Rules"
Hart Williams: "Going through the last year's posts, I was astonished at how prescient this was, predicting very accurately the issues that would lead to impeachment ten months and four days later. It also contains an important warning as to how democracies die that bears repeating."

Bluestem Prairie
"MN01: the hostile world of Hagedorn town halls, updated with videos of Mankato area meetings"
Sally Jo Sorensen: "Freshman Republican Representative Jim Hagedorn faces hostile crowds across his Southern Minnesota district. He doesn't help himself with hostile answers about suicide, climate action, and other topics."

Spocko's Brain
"What To Do If A Trump Supporter Threatens You"
Spocko: "I'm very proud of this piece because it describes how to successfully deal with an online bully."

Brilliant at Breakfast Rebooted
"18 Years On – When Is It Time To Stop?"
Jill: "Musings on whether it's time to let the 9/11 dead finally rest."

This Is So Gay
"Caress, Fondle, Nuzzle the Hair of Your Feelings"
Duncan Mitchel: "The First Amendment guarantees your right to be marginalized, offended, and to feel like an outcast. Celebrate it!"

Doctor Cleveland
"Shakespeare Wasn't Perfect"
Doctor Cleveland: "Why do people keep coming up with ever less plausible candidates as the “real” Shakespeare? Because we can’t accept his flaws."

"The Bonfire of the Sanities"
driftglass: "Meet Mr. Michael Gerson: former George W. Bush chief speechwriter, senior Republican policy adviser and reliable Beltway Republican stalactite who now exists in a perpetual state of shock that his Republican Party is full of Republicans."

Blue Gal/The Professional Left Podcast
"Ep 524: Impeachment Articles At Last, and a Convo with Jay Rosen"
Blue Gal: "A brief discussion of our reaction to impeachment. . . . and a long discussion with Jay Rosen of Pressthink.org."

Special bonus post:
Crooks and Liars
"Rachel Maddow And Meghan McCain: A Study In Contrasts"
Frances Langum: "This post is one of my favorites from this year, a takedown of Meghan McCain."

Vagabond Scholar
"Bred for Circuses"
Batocchio: "Conservatives and Republicans can't win many arguments on the merits, so they try to reduce everything to an us-versus-them battle. Authoritarianism, a propaganda network, and outsized media personas are a big help for this."

Thanks again, folks. Happy blogging and everything else in 2020, which promises to be an eventual year.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Bred for Circuses

Conservatives and Republicans can win few arguments honestly on the merits; most of their policies are awful for the vast majority of Americans and benefit only a select few, typically the rich and powerful. Conservative positions tend to be unpopular, too. Rather than change their policies, conservatives choose to lie constantly and shamelessly, and to stoke the worst impulses of their base. Key to these dynamics is ignoring matters of truth and fact, as well as any serious discussion of greater principles about how our country should work. Instead, they try to reduce everything to my team against your team, us against them. The Republican Party is aided in this by a large block of rabid, authoritarian conservatives and a propaganda network eager to feed the faithful the latest two minutes hate, 24/7. Outsized media personas play a critical role in this strategy. ("Conservative" and "Republican" are pretty interchangeable in this post, but for more on that, see the first link above.)

Conservatives and Republicans are also aided, however, by shallow political coverage by mainstream media outlets that far too often withhold essential context from their audiences by refusing to fact check or call out lies, by pretending policy doesn't matter, by pretending both major American political parties are basically the same and both sides are equally to blame for our political problems, and that any deeper look is pointless and/or partisan. Shallow coverage is cheaper to produce and avoids offending some viewers (while aggravating others), and is also seen as neutral and savvy by some reporters. Unfortunately, it's lousy for informing citizens and thus bad for democracy. Propaganda typically demonizes the perceived opposition unfairly, whereas shallow political coverage is loath to call out even clear wrongdoing or hypocrisy by one party. Thus both lying and gutlessness reduce the national political discourse to superficial, bad sports coverage of two competing political teams and to treating important matters as mere entertainment, a sitcom, a circus.

We've seen all these dynamics play out in the impeachment hearings on Donald Trump, related press conferences and media coverage of all of it. During the impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives, several observers noted that Republicans seemed less interested in making coherent arguments or convincing the general populace of their cause than creating video clips for Fox News to run for the conservative base. After the hearings moved from the intelligence committee chaired by Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) to the judiciary committee, Republicans pulled the stunt of putting Schiff on a milk carton poster, saying he was missing because he rejected their call to appear as a witness. (Republicans also asked to call the anonymous whistleblower yet again.) Schiff rejected the request, instead pointing to the intelligence committee's 300-page report and the evidence it covered, and added:

There is nothing to testify about. I think if the President or his allies in the Senate persist it means they are not serious about what they are doing. What would I offer in terms of testimony, that I heard Dr. [Fiona] Hill in open hearing say such and such? That is not pertinent. The only reason for them to go through with this is to mollify the President and that is not a good reason to try to call a member of Congress as a witness.

Trump has repeatedly, angrily expressed a desire to prosecute Schiff for paraphrasing him, but has run into the small problems that that's not illegal and Trump is not a dictator. Judiciary chair Jerold Nadler (D-NY) unsurprisingly sided with Schiff about testifying, and in his letter to Republicans, Nadler cited the "independent evidence" for the conclusions of the report and issues initially raised by the whistleblower. Nadler also reiterated for the umpteenth time concerns about witness intimidation and threats of retaliation by Trump and other conservatives against the whistleblower. As for the report itself, Professor Heather Cox Richardson, who's delivered excellent analysis on the impeachment hearings and related stories, offered up a nice summary on 12/3/19:

The big news today was that the House Intelligence Committee released its report on its investigation into the Ukraine scandal that is at the heart of the impeachment case against Trump. Although the report was long, it had two very clear points: the facts against Trump prove that he solicited a bribe—wording designed to show that the scandal meets the Constitution’s threshold for impeachment—and that Trump obstructed justice in his attempts to stonewall Congress and intimidate witnesses. Obstruction of justice is a crime; it is what took Nixon down in 1974.

The report lays out that the Ukraine scandal is at heart an attempt to rig the 2020 election and destroy our democracy with the help of a foreign country. It points out that this is a pattern for Trump, who benefited from Russian aid in 2016 and who has openly called for help from China as well as Ukraine before the upcoming election. The report notes that Trump’s call with Zelensky took place the day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified in public, apparently convincing Trump he was no longer in danger of being nabbed for working with Russia in 2016, and was willing to try a similar scheme again.

The report also notes that the Founders worried about precisely this behavior, and that if it is not checked, democracy is over. The House Intelligence Committee report is a remarkably clear, concise, and powerful document.

For their part, the White House ignored all the facts and relied instead on disinformation. . . .

These are grave matters, but Republicans do not want to discuss the facts and principles driving all serious discussions of impeachment. Likewise, Republicans showed little interest that intelligence committee ranking member Devin Nunes (R-CA), who led the Trump defense in the first set of impeachment hearings, allegedly was part of the Ukraine scandal himself to some degree. As of late November, Republicans had offered at least 22 excuses for Trump (or by another count, 64), many of them contradictory. This blunderbuss technique is a reliable sign of bullshitting and bad faith. Similarly, the Republicans' competing impeachment report "is a series of red herrings." (As of this writing, the House has impeached Trump, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has vowed to coordinate with the White House during any trial in the Senate, further suggestion that the fix is in and the Republican-majority Senate will not convict Trump, regardless of the merits of the charges.) Meanwhile, Trump's unhinged letter to Nancy Pelosi frames the entire impeachment process as driven by a personal vendetta against Trump, not the serious matter of upholding core principles of the U.S. Constitution that it is. Trump's conceit is that Schiff, Pelosi, and every single person who's said something critical of him, given factual evidence harmful to him or moved to curtail his power simply dislikes him personally versus, say, being motivated to uphold the rule of law and think of the good of the country and other higher principles. Trump and the Republicans cannot win an honest, substantive discussion. So they need to reduce everything to: Their guy doesn't like our guy. Just because he's our guy. Fight for our guy. Fight for the team. Attack the enemy.

These dynamics are not remotely new, even if they've become more prevalent not just in politician's arguments but in the political coverage itself. Back in 2006, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg discussed the theatricality of political commentary, even comparing the choice of political talk show figures to sitcom casting. This was back when Ann Coulter was arguably at the nadir of her awfulness, selling shock value and viciousness, and getting plenty of coverage from mainstream media outlets in addition to her usual support from Fox News and other conservative entities. What Nunberg describes as political "smut" overlaps with behavior we might now call trolling, and Coulter was one of the most successful practitioners at the time:

Take Ann Coulter's recent description of the 9/11 widows as self-obsessed witches who were enjoying their husbands' deaths. As calumnies go, it doesn't have a patch on the things people were saying in the 1864 election, when the Democrats called Lincoln a leering buffoon, and Horace Greeley accused the Democrats of stealing the votes of dead Union soldiers. But it's only in the current age that remarks like those could turn someone into a media celebrity who's invited to appear on Jay Leno and the Today Show to repeat her choicest remarks for the delectation or outrage of their viewers.

Coulter's celebrity is a good measure of what has become of political discussion. You'd scarcely describe her as a political thinker, no more than you'd describe Simon Cowell as an critic of the arts. But like Cowell, she has an unerring gift for media theatrics. It isn't just her penchant for making snarky or outrageous remarks. Plenty of people do that without being invited onto the Today Show, and in fact Coulter doesn't get a lot of national attention for her run-of-the-mill ruminations about giving rat poison to Justice Stevens or fragging John Murtha. But the remark about the 9/11 widows was irresistible for its brazen and gratuitous tastelessness and the obvious pleasure Coulter took in consternation she created.

Is Coulter is sincere about the things she says? That's a silly question, like asking whether schoolchildren are sincere in the taunts they throw at each other across the school yard. But that doesn't make her a satirist, as her defenders like to claim -- usually with the implication that her literal-minded liberal critics don't get the joke.

Satire depicts things as grotesque in order to make them seem ridiculous -- what Stephen Colbert does in his Bill O'Reilly persona or Christopher Buckley does with the pointed caricatures of Thank You For Smoking. But Coulter isn't actually sending anybody up -- not herself, certainly, and not the targets of her remarks. Her fans may enjoy hearing her talk about poisoning Justice Stevens or say that it's a pity Timothy McVeigh didn't park his truck next to the New York Times building. But that's not because the remarks make either Stevens or New York Times seem particularly ridiculous. It's because Coulter seems to be able to get away with unbridled aggression by presenting it as mere mischief, leaving her critics looking prim and humorless. ("Perhaps her book should have been called 'Heartless,'" said Hillary Clinton after Coulter's remarks about the widows, inviting the response, "Oh lighten up, girl.")

That rhetorical maneuver doesn't really have a name, but it's a close relative of what we think of as smut. In the strict sense, of course, smut is the leering innuendo that veils sexual aggression. But in a broader sense, smut can be any kind of malice that pretends to be mere naughtiness. It might be a leering vulgarity, a racial epithet, or simply a venomous insult -- what makes it smut is that it's tricked out as humor, so that if anyone claims to be offended you can answer indignantly, "Can't you take a joke?"

In that broad sense, smut can sometimes be innocuous fun. It's a staple of sitcoms, in what you could think of as a Wooo! moment. That's the moment when a character who's comically malicious or catty (think Betty White, Rhea Perlman, Joseph Marcell) makes a remark that's just offensive or risqué enough to brush the limits of taste, and the studio audience reacts by saying "Woooo!!"

The political talk shows traffic in these moments, too -- not surprising, considering how much those shows owe to the classic sitcom. When you think of the most successful practitioners of the genre, whether Coulter, O'Reilly, or James Carville, there isn't a one of them who couldn't be the model for a recurring character on Cheers or Drew Carey -- the waspish virago, the bombastic blowhard, the sly yokel.

And as on the sitcoms, the drama of the political talk show is character-driven rather than plot-driven. Watching O'Reilly or Hannity and Colmes, you can't help recalling the bickering on All in the Family, where politics was always just a pretext for the clash of personalities. It doesn't matter whether the ostensible issue is the massacre at Haditha or an increase in wild bachelorette parties; it's going to be reduced to grist for the eternal squabble between liberals and conservatives -- not as adherents of opposing political philosophies, but more as distinctive political genders. ("Who are these parents who allow their kids to sleep with Michael Jackson?," Alan Colmes asked a couple of years back, and Sean Hannity answered, "Liberals.")

Coulter and Trump share a great deal in terms of a bullying style, but also in their knack for nabbing mainstream coverage and validation, in large part by crafting a character to sell, a media persona. (Coulter thankfully gets less attention these days. Incidentally, Coulter has criticized Trump for not building a border wall and not being harsh enough on immigration, but says she will vote for him anyway. My most in-depth post on Coulter is this one, although some links are broken.) Coulter, like many conservative political commentators, has always been light on substance or outright rejects it. Instead, the key selling point for such figures has always been viciousness and 'owning the libs,' to the delight of their audience. Coulter is now a less popular conservative belligerent than, say, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Mark Levin, Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Tomi Lahren and perennial ragemonger Rush Limbaugh (among others), but currently, they're all eclipsed by the biggest conservative troll of them all, Donald Trump.

As we've covered before, Trump's main selling point to the conservative base is spite; he promises to hurt the people they fear and dislike. He's a bigot, and racism and bigotry form a key part of his appeal to his fans. The recording of him bragging about sexual assault did not sink his presidential campaign and at least 25 women have accused him of sexual misconduct. Trump constantly lies; as of October 2019, he'd told at least 13,435 false or misleading claims over 993 days. In 2016 shortly after being elected, Trump paid $25 million to settle fraud cases against Trump University, a business that one of its own employees described as "a fraudulent scheme." Trump also recently paid a $2 million settlement for using charity funds supposedly going to military veterans for personal use instead, including buying a portrait of himself. (Grifting runs in the family; son Eric Trump's charity misused funds meant to go to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, which predominantly serves kids with cancer.) Imagine the conservative outrage if Barack Obama or really any Democrat had done a fraction of this, yet most of them give Trump a pass.

Trump's image as a successful businessman is an utter fiction constructed by Trump himself, aided by his late father and by fawning media coverage. He's not a business genius, or even a competent businessman – he just plays one on TV. As The New York Times reported in 2016:

[Trump's] casino companies made four trips to bankruptcy court, each time persuading bondholders to accept less money rather than be wiped out. But the companies repeatedly added more expensive debt and returned to the court for protection from lenders. . . .

All the while, Mr. Trump received copious amounts for himself, with the help of a compliant board. In one instance, The Times found, Mr. Trump pulled more than $1 million from his failing public company, describing the transaction in securities filings in ways that may have been illegal, according to legal experts.

In 2018, The New York Times further reported that rather than being largely a self-made man, Trump inherited at least $413 million from his father, and his entire family has enriched itself with possibly illegal schemes. In 2019, the Times reported that Trump lost over a billion dollars over a decade, losing more money than any other individual in the United States in that time period while simultaneously selling himself as a great dealmaker. Trump's retorts to these reports were unconvincing; as The New Yorker's John Cassidy put it, Trump stands revealed as the biggest loser. Trump's dealings with Deutsche Bank further undermine any claims of actual business acumen versus his ability to scam lenders. Trump may not actually be a billionaire and almost certainly has less money than he pretends, but nonetheless, he'd have more money if he had simply invested in the stock market than attempted all his deals. (As people have joked, Trump has lost money selling booze, steaks and gambling to Americans. Who does that?)

Conservatives sure love their macho daddy figures, from those fake cowboys, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, to that fake, successful businessman, Donald Trump. The book The Art of the Deal played a critical role in selling the myth of Trump, but its deeply regretful ghostwriter Tony Schwartz has explained how he made Trump appear far more thoughtful, competent and ethical than he actually is. The Art of the Deal in turn helped Trump get an even larger vehicle for mythmaking, the NBC TV show, The Apprentice. As The New Yorker article "How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump As an Icon of American Success" explains:

"The Apprentice" portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake," [producer Jonathon] Braun told me. "He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king." Bill Pruitt, another producer, recalled, "We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise."

(For more on the mythic Trump created on The Apprentice, see The New Yorker again, The New York Times, Fortune and People's piece on Fisher Stevens' documentary on Trump, The Confidence Man.)

Donald Trump is probably one of the worst businessmen in human history and also possibly the most successful con man. His image as a great businessman and dealmaker is a complete fraud. About the only authentic things about him are his vanity, bigotry, greed, proud ignorance and spite. Yet the conservative base loves him and congressional Republicans loyally defend him despite any misgivings.

Mainstream media outlets have often struggled to cover Trump, as well as conservative and Republican perfidy in general. In contrast to some of the excellent investigative journalism mentioned above, daily news coverage of political clashes often descends to a "he said, she said" level. For example, Dan Froomkin's piece criticizing a New York Times article on impeachment is aptly titled, "In the war on truth, the press can't be an innocent bystander." Fact-checking and calling out liars is essential, but often doesn't occur. Likewise, as we've mentioned before, "coverage on the 2016 presidential race almost entirely ignored policy issues and focused on shallow issues with false balance." Such coverage decisions help candidates with bad positions, slim policy portfolios or a habit of lying. False equivalencies and "both siderism" also remain persistent scourges to good journalism, but rather than delve into that here, I'll once again link past posts by digby, driftglass, alicublog, Balloon Juice, LGM and my own archives.

Consider entertainment programming – and news sold as entertainment – and the picture grows even worse. NBC created The Apprentice and played a central role in creating the myth of Trump that enabled him not only to run for president but win. NBC also let Trump host Saturday Night Live even after cutting ties with him over bigoted comments. And NBC and other mainstream outlets have long validated Trump and earlier toxic figures such as Ann Coulter. Trump received more than $5.9 billion of free media coverage during the election, over twice the amount received by Hillary Clinton. In 2016, then-CBS chairman Les Moonves made some infamous remarks about the "circus":

Donald Trump’s candidacy might not be making America great, CBS Chairman Les Moonves said Monday, but it’s great for his company.

"It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," Moonves said at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco, according to The Hollywood Reporter — perfectly distilling what media critics have long suspected was motivating the round-the-clock coverage of Trump's presidential bid.

"Most of the ads are not about issues. They're sort of like the debates," Moonves said, noting, "[t]here's a lot of money in the marketplace."

The 2016 campaign is a "circus," he remarked, but "Donald's place in this election is a good thing."

Moonves' later claim that he was joking was unconvincing. Trump was a horrible candidate who frequently behaved vilely, but he was a showman, so CBS, NBC, and other outlets gave Trump tons of coverage, some negative, but not really that critical, and certainly not substantive, given their scant discussion of policy. They rejected sound editorial judgment and shamefully if predictably chose short-term profits over a sense of civic duty to meaningfully inform their audiences, especially because they thought Clinton would win and their behavior could not affect the election. But it most certainly did.

Worse than the mainstream outlets, though, are propaganda outlets, most notably Fox News. Fox News has always scored poorly in terms of factual accuracy, but it's moved beyond being a conservative news outlet to being outright propaganda, comfortable to flat-out lie. The same is true of Republicans in government, and the two work closely together. See, for example, Jane Mayer in The New Yorker on "The Making of the Fox News White House" and Greg Sargent in The Washington Post on how "McConnell’s awful Hannity interview shows power of Fox News’s disinformation." In a similar vein, The Post reported, "A Justice Department inspector general’s report examining the FBI investigation of President Trump’s 2016 campaign rebutted conservatives’ accusations that top FBI officials were driven by political bias to illegally spy on Trump advisers but also found broad and “serious performance failures” requiring major changes." Attorney General William Barr, a Republican party loyalist, has undercut his own department and directly contradicted key findings of the report, as covered in Sargent's piece, "William Barr’s deceptions are more dangerous than you think" and Wonkette's "Just When You Thought You Couldn't Respect Bill Barr Any Less." Wired covered Barr and much more in "Fox News Is Now a Threat to National Security." Digby's commented on similar dynamics in "The Nonsense Ecosystem" (adopting a phrase from Daniel Dale) and many other posts. Fox News and the entire right-wing media ecosystem pose a serious and growing problem to democracy. As several people have noted, if Nixon had had Fox News, he might not have been impeached.

Authoritarian conservatism plays a pivotal role in making the propaganda work; Fox News and similar outlets cater to an audience eager to hate their scapegoats du jour. In 2016, then-candidate Trump bragged that "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters." He considered it praise for his supporters' loyalty; it was instead an accurate and chilling description of unquestioning obedience and authoritarianism (and Trump's megalomania). One of Trump's lawyers has actually argued in court that as president, Trump could indeed shoot someone in 5th Avenue and get away with it (shades of Bush lawyer John Yoo). The transcript of Trump's call with Ukrainian President Zelensky is damning, especially with the added context that has been provided by later reporting and the impeachment hearings. Yet Trump and his allies have shouted to "READ THE TRANSCRIPT!" as if it exonerates him. Trump even held a rally where supporters were wearing t-shirts (presumably distributed by Trump's team) saying "READ THE TRANSCRIPT!" Naturally, as The Daily Show discovered in a great segment covering a later rally, most Trump supporters have not read the transcript and were not familiar with the key takeaways, even though some said – without irony or self-awareness – that reading the transcript, not being a sheep and being an independent thinker were all important. They simply believe what they're told, and do so gladly it's from the right authority figures, whether that's Trump himself, Fox News talking heads or other conservative figures. It's completely Orwellian; they will eagerly believe that black is white and insist that their chosen political team is always in the right. (Who are you going to believe, Trump and Fox News or your lying eyes?)

Trump was clearly unfit for office before the election and has provided overwhelming evidence of his unfitness since. The misdeeds for which he's being impeached may not even be the worst things he's done (and who knows what else will come out), but they're certainly sufficient grounds for removing him from office. The conservative base, Republican voters and congressional Republicans simply do not care. Nearly 90% of self-described Republicans voted for Trump in 2016, and assuming he's still in office by the time of the 2020 election, similar percentages will likely vote for him again, despite any disapproval they express. As of this writing, Trump has been impeached but the articles of impeachment have not been sent to the Senate. The Democratic presidential candidate for 2020 has not been chosen and the presidential election has not occurred. Despite some uncertainties about the year(s) ahead, we can make some reasonable predictions, among them that conservatives and Republicans will not behave honorably and it would be folly to expect otherwise.

Conservatives tend to be bullies with power and whiners without it. They've constructed alternative realities with alternative facts, where they can believe what they want and feel simultaneously persecuted (and thus righteously aggrieved) and superior. Some religious conservatives (ostensibly Christian) will even cite ancient Roman persecution of Christians, that they were thrown to lions in the arena. There's some truth but mostly myth to that tale, but regardless, some religious conservatives will apocalyptically invoke the image as a future reality should "socialism" take hold (via a Bernie Sanders presidency, for instance). The truth is that conservatives thrill for combat with their chosen foes, and that they'd just choose new scapegoats if they ever succeeded in eliminating the old ones. They don't believe in treating others as they would like be treated, and certainly don't believe in turning the other cheek. They are pro-spectacle, anti-substance, pro-circus; authoritarian conservatives are particularly bred for circuses. They don't truly object to the idea of throwing people to the lions; they just want the power to choose the victims.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)