Turning mourning in America into the dawn of a better day

George Bush himself would not countenance that we grieve so long or loudly for him, just another citizen on the same journey as the rest of us.  But I sense he wouldn’t disagree with those who use the occasion of his death to grieve for the temporary loss of that which his life symbolized.  Leonard Pitts catches that well in his column in the Miami Herald today, in which he jumps off from Bush’s efforts to inspire with calls for a kinder, gentler country that could generate a thousand points of light

Presidents – and those who want to be president – have always sought to weave poetry from the prose of our daily lives, to ennoble our strivings and speak to what another Republican once called “the better angels of our nature.”

That’s what statesmen did once upon a time. But America has seldom seemed further from statesmanship – or from the vision Bush articulated – than it does now as the 41st president passes from the scene.

He died just days after the United States used teargas against asylum seekers, including children in diapers, after a handful of boys and men threw rocks at a border checkpoint in San Diego.

He was eulogized in Washington as lame duck Republican legislator[s] in Wisconsin brazenly strong-armed democracy and lifted a middle finger to the will of the people, voting to strip power from the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general.

He was memorialized in Texas as investigators in North Carolina probed an alleged scheme in which an operative working for a GOP candidate collected absentee ballots from voters in Democratic areas and diverted them from the ballot box.

These are the kinds of things that seem to happen every day in the thugocracy America has become. And that speaks to how thoroughly America rejected the vision of itself Bush offered 30 years ago.

(snip)

…the successes and failures of his public life have little to do with the very particular sense of loss some of us feel as the last president of the Greatest Generation takes his leave. There is always a sense of moment when a president dies. But the death of this president, this decent man, seems to close one of the few remaining doors between us and that time when presidents made poetry of our prose and you didn’t wake up every day to some new thugocratic outrage.

“Some have said this is an end of an era,” Bush’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Russell Jones Levenson, Jr., said during his eulogy in Washington. “But it doesn’t have to be. Perhaps this is an invitation to fill the void that has been left behind.”

No, it doesn’t have to be the end, and we don’t have to give up hope that the system Bush cherished and served will revive, and survive.

There’s other news today that I choose to take as a positive sign that the body politic’s natural antibodies are turning the tide in the on-going fight against the invaders: in court papers filed in the cases against Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, federal prosecutors reveal evidence of legal violations they claim were committed by Donald Trump.  And with hints of more to come.  As Democrats are poised to take control from Republicans in one house of Congress with the hope that they will fulfill the constitutional mandate of checks and balances that Paul Ryan’s House never did.

A thousand points of light are just the beginnings of a new dawn.

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It’s been a hell of a year

If you want to try to narrow down the chaos that is Trump’s America,  try for a moment to put aside the things the president has done, and those you fear he might do, which you feel threaten the security of our country, or maybe even the safety of the entire world (there are some things!), and just focus on corruption.  There’s too much, right?  Well, not if you’re CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.  Earlier this month it published its cumulative list of actions that it considers to be personal conflicts of interest for President Trump…things he has done to financially benefit himself and his family, things that no previous president has ever done (at least not so blatantly and openly).

CREW researchers spent a year tracking every known interaction between the Trump administration and the Trump Organization in a daily timeline. Here’s what they found:

  • President Trump spent a full third of his first year in office—122 days—visiting his commercial properties.

  • Seventy executive branch officials, more than 30 members of Congress and more than a dozen state officials visited Trump Organization properties during the first year of the Trump administration.

  • President Trump and his White House staff promoted the Trump brand by mentioning or referring to one of the president’s private businesses on at least 35 different occasions during the president’s first year in office.

  • There have been more than 40 instances of special interest groups holding events at Trump properties since January 20, 2017.

  • At least eleven foreign governments paid Trump-owned entities during the president’s first year in office, and at least six foreign government officials have made appearances at Trump Organization properties.

  • Political groups spent more than $1.2 million at Trump properties during the president’s first year in office. Prior to President Trump’s 2016 campaign, annual spending by political committees at Trump properties had never exceeded $100,000 in any given year going back to at least 2002.

Are you OK with all of that?  I’m not.  But a thing that is in some ways even worse—although frankly I’m having trouble deciding what thing is worse than the next thing anymore—is the revelation of the heart and soul of the national Republican Party in this first year of the Trump Administration.  (Yes, it’s only been one year.)  Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin gives a stark but honest reading in the Washington Post:

The sight of conservative Republicans cheering President Trump as a great success in his first year in office tells us much about the state of conservatism and the future of the GOP. There are two components to the reverential treatment of Trump: first, praise for allegedly conservative wins, and second, a willingness to tolerate falsehoods and attacks upon democratic norms and the American creed, as though these are matters of style.

As to the first, “conservatism” these days has become (both in the eyes of liberals who think conservatism is interchangeable with “right-wing extremism” and those claiming the conservative mantle) a cartoon version of itself. A tax cut that grows the deficit and gives disproportionate benefits to the rich is a “win” and “conservative” because, because … why? Because conservatism demands that whatever the needs of the moment and whatever the politics, the first order of business is to starve the government of revenue? Tax cuts unmoored from reasonable ends (e.g. fiscal sobriety, focused help for the working and middle class) are not “conservative”; deficits and widening of income inequality should not be cause for celebration.

Likewise, denying climate change or calling all regulatory repeal “conservative” (is it conservative to allow restaurants to take away employees’ tips?) doesn’t strike us as evidence of truth-based, modest government. In sum, much of the cheering for “conservative” ends skips over the details, disregards the substance and ignores context — none of which are indices of conservative thought. It is not conservative to favor reversing everything President Barack Obama did without regard to changed circumstances or alternatives. That doesn’t make Obama’s political legacy wonderful; it makes those advocating blind destruction without reasoned alternatives anything but conservative.

(snip)

The “shithole” episode vividly illustrates this. The sentiment underlying Trump’s attack on African immigrants entails a repudiation of the “all men are created equal” creed, a disregard of facts (e.g., education levels of African immigrants) and a rejection of economic reality verging on illiteracy. (We do need skilled and unskilled workers, we do not have a finite number of jobs, etc.) Put on top of that the willingness to prevaricate (Well, if we say it was “shithouse” and not “shithole,” we can say Sen. Dick Durbin was lying!) and you have an assault on principles that are the foundation for our democracy and for conservatism (or what it used to be). It’s not a minor episode. It’s in many ways a defining episode, not only for Trump but, worse, for his defenders.

OK, just one more today.  As bad as I feel this has been, I am persuaded by Leonard Pitts, Jr., in a column entitled “Trump’s definitely not the brains of the operation—and that’s a good thing” that it could be worse:

But what if Trump were smart?

More to the point, what if there arose some future demagogue who combined Trump’s new media savvy with a toxic ideology? It’s not far-fetched to wonder if Trump is not simply writing that individual’s playbook, showing her or him how easily a stable democracy can be subverted.

So even as we grapple with the daily outrages of this presidency, it would be smart to begin inoculating future generations against one that could be worse. Now, then, would be an excellent time to push even harder for Internet giants like Facebook and Twitter to find better ways of purging their platforms of false news and hate.

Now would also be an excellent time for schools to beef up their teaching of philosophy, history, civics, social studies. Teach those things as a means of helping people to think critically, value truth and internalize the ideals that are supposed to make America America.

All I can hear in my head right now is Whitney Houston: 

I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way

The story of the Bannon presidency so far

Leonard Pitts, Jr., this weekend in the Miami Herald, appropriately sizes up the situation and issues a blunt reminder that we all have a responsibility to take care of our society:

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Dear Pat Ryan,

I just thought I’d check in to see how things are going with you.  Some of us have gotten a little curious because we haven’t heard much of anything from you in a while now and we started to wonder what was going on.  I mean, if you say you’re going to write a blog, it is customary to actually write something from time to time.  You know, something to make the customers realize that you’re not stone dead, or ignoring them, or “too busy with work and other things” to be bothered keeping up with your commitments.  C’mon, just six damn posts in the last four months?  What’s the deal?

I mean, fercryingoutloud, in just the last few months you’ve passed up the chance to say something about:

You’ve sort of led people to believe that you cared about civil liberties and the whole gay marriage thing, or were at least interested in the subject, but when

you observe radio silence.  I mean, you gotta understand why the people would at least wonder if you’ve given up, or converted or something.

You even let this great picture on Twitter go by without any acknowledgement!

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So anyway, I’d just like to say I hope you get your shit together and try to be a little more regular contributor in this space, or the owners may start thinking seriously about changing the name up there at the top of the page.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice…

The “supercommittee” admitted defeat; it won’t have a blueprint for reducing the nation’s deficit (stories here, here and here).  Is this a bad thing?

Some have argued, no: the first direct result of getting no plan from this committee is that the law which authorized it will now automatically cut $1.2 trillion from defense and non-defense spending over ten years starting in 2013, and that may end up giving us more deficit reduction than we’d have gotten otherwise.  No way to know for sure, of course, but it makes sense.

I mean, there’s no reason to believe that the same members of Congress who thought nothing of threatening government default for political gain this past summer were likely to come to any agreement now, not when the party that controls the House (and virtually controls the Senate with the threat of filibuster) is still holding its breath threatening to turn blue rather than be responsible and discuss the best ways to increase revenue as part of the answer (along with spending cuts and overall economic growth) to getting the federal budget on a healthy path.  None at all.

To believe otherwise would mean, first of all, believing that the sheep people lined up behind Speakers Boehner and Limbaugh have any goal more important that the defeat of President Obama.  They don’t, unless it is the personal destruction of Obama, and anyone unlike themselves.  Second, it means they would have to have the backbone to say no to the no-tax extremists and the campaign contributors.

I read an interesting article making the point that we’re foolish to think that our elected representatives will do anything that makes sense for us, because they’re in place to serve their bosses: namely, the minority of the population who actually vote in the primaries, and the even smaller percentage of the people who pay the bills through campaign contributions both above and below board.  (By the way, read Michael Moran’s piece setting the stage for his blog The Reckoning.)

The other thing to watch out for right now, though, is the cowardly Congress finding a way to back out of the deal it made with itself!  No Congress can pass a law that would prevent a future Congress from unpassing that law; just because it set itself this deadline and mandated future budget cuts as a penalty for failing to meet that deadline can’t prevent the next Congress from overriding all or some part of the threatened budget reductions, and that’s entirely possible for a group that already can’t say no to anyone (which is a big part of what got our budget in this mess to begin with).

Give some thought to Moran’s suggestion: in times of crisis, what if we take control away from politicians and give it to people who know what they’re doing?

A real super-committee – a real committee not only empowered to take the steps necessary to right the American economy, but competent to do so – would include 12 serious thinkers. They might include policymakers like former Fed Chairmen Paul Volker or (the suitably contrite) Alan Greenspan, economists of left and right like Stanford’s John B. Taylor, Yale’s Robert Schiller, NYU-Stern’s Nouriel Roubini, plus a few representatives of labor, small business and capital – let’s say Robert Reich, Joseph Schneider of Lacrosse Footwear, and Warren Buffett, just for kicks. No investment bank chairman, please, and no one facing reelection.

Can you imagine this group failing to come up with a solution? Can you imagine any of them worrying more about the next election than the future of the world’s largest economy? Certainly, they would clash – perhaps over the same tax v. spending cut issues. The difference: they would understand better than any member of Congress that no solution is far worse than a less-than-perfect solution.