How Bad is Corruption under Trump?

How bad is corruption under Trump? To help us answer the question, it’s useful to consider first what the major types of corruption are and secondly what the extent of corruption was in past American administrations before we get to the particulars of Trump’s administration.

Historically one finds two general types of corruption in the presidential context. One type involves the illegal use of governmental access to enhance private self-enrichment. The worst offenders in such cases tended to be those entrusted with high cabinet or sub-cabinet positions. The second type is directly political, involving the unconstitutional overstepping of one’s prescribed authority to augment political power and undermine opponents. Corruption of this type generally involves direction by a person or persons with overarching authority, presumably including the president himself.

Most historians agree that the most egregious examples of corruption of either kind occurred in the administrations of Grant (1869-1877), Harding (1921-23), and Nixon (1969-1974). Broadly speaking, the Grant and Harding administrations represent the first type of corruption, while the Nixon administration represents the second.

Widespread graft arose in the Grant and Harding administrations in the aftermath of wars (the Civil War and World War I, respectively) where wartime corruption had played a larger-than-life role. As Americans turned their animal spirits to the making of money in peacetime, public corruption followed naturally. A climate of license extended into the highest levels of the federal government, a situation exacerbated by the negligent management style of both Grant and Harding. The upshot was that numerous office holders milked the system through payoffs and bribery with relative impunity. The Whisky Ring and Teapot Dome scandals were the inevitable results.

The Nixon administration and its signature brand of corruption arose under different circumstances. Nixon’s election came during a period of increasing political polarization. The strong law-and-order stance of the Nixon-Agnew campaign, which targeted minorities and intellectuals, came in response to broad anti-war opposition. Reinforced by the intrusive authoritarianism of J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, the Nixon administration developed a siege mentality that made it easy to brand opponents and media critics as enemies of the state. The corrupt political abuses of Watergate flowed naturally from those premises.

Corruption under Trump is unique in that it includes both types of corrupt abuses. In the area of type 1 corruption (self-enrichment), bad actors proliferated within the loose structure of Trump’s regime from the outset. On the relatively petty level, a gilded sense of entitlement led to a keen appetite on the part of officials for government-paid excursions, extravagant office furniture, shady housing arrangements from lobbyists, and the like. More serious graft involved insider stock trading by two cabinet members (Tom Price and Wilbur Ross) and self-dealing by assorted members of the Trump clan: Ivanka using political connections to further her international brand, Jared taking advantage of his position to negotiate billion-dollar loans for his business, and the president garnering proceeds from hotels and golf retreats ready-made for international favor-seekers. Continuing to hold the reins of his business empire and projecting an aura of untouchability, the president set his administration’s standard of integrity through his own example, making it the lowest bar for acceptable behavior of any  presidency in history.

As attention-grabbing as this record of graft is, Trump’s major ground-breaking comes in the area of type 2 corruption (political abuses). His similarity in this regard to Nixon, who stood as the avatar of political corruption in his own administration, is obvious. Nixon worked to bring the Justice Department under his baleful influence, discredit his opponents, and essentially put himself above the law. While Trump so far has not yet remade the Justice Department into his personal tool (although not from any lack of trying), his efforts to politicize the law and undermine democratic rules and conventions  seem to have gone well beyond Nixon’s. In so doing he created a  style of corruption all his own.

Whereas Nixon committed many of his worst deeds in secret, most notably the Watergate burglary, the secret investigation of enemies, the tactical sabotaging of opponents’ campaigns, Trump has done most of his dirty work in the public eye. His corruption of the political system has occurred largely through his powers of appointment, dismissal, and pardon, his issuance of executive orders, and, most obtrusively, his use of the bully pulpit to shame, insult, and threaten.

By such means Trump eroded and demeaned the system of checks and balances, including  the judiciary, the press, and Congress’s powers of oversight, which properly serve as a counterweight to a president’s personal power. He undermined  the rule of law and the Constitution by making loyalty to himself, both inside and outside of his administration, paramount. He  attacked traditionally apolitical American agencies, including the intelligence and crime investigative services, to discredit them as objective bodies. And, having surrounded himself with appointees of dubious reputation (Manafort, Flynn, Cohen, Stone, etc.), he created an odor of criminality throughout his administration.

Much of Trump’s ability to corrupt democratic practices and institutions derived from his firm command over a large minority of voters. Through appeals to fear, anger, and prejudice, and by conveying the impression that truth is what any of his right-minded followers think it is, he held and continues to hold 40% of adult Americans and a political party in his palm. This has allowed Trump to call whatever contradicts his pronouncements “fake news,” to justify virtually any action as appropriate against his  enemies, to deny today what he said yesterday or to switch the goalposts at will, and to cast a cloud of doubt over  challenges to his deeds and accomplishments. Trump’s power over Republicans has made bipartisan stands on principle or the drawing of lines in the sand against Trump’s actions virtually impossible.

The American people are now observing in real time the  hijacking of their once functioning democracy to conform to one man’s warped version of it. Sadly enough, this is happening with the active collaboration of a large minority of snake-charmed Americans. Trump has managed to make these voters so indifferent to evidence and the truth, and so inflamed with grievances, that it is likely they would greet any report issued by Special Counsel Mueller, no matter how well argued or documented, with unalloyed skepticism. They would find it ipso facto unacceptable, a result that would in all probability render the nation ungovernable. Now that’s corruption.

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Red States Face Political Rumblings in Wake of Teacher Strikes

This spring, Republican governors and legislatures across the country faced major backlash from teachers protesting the neglect and defunding of public education. Work stoppages, teacher marches, and other demonstrations of populist anger appeared in the reddest of red states, notably West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona, notorious for low salaries and needy schools. Although the strikes seemed to come out of nowhere, they cannot be cast aside as random incidents. They clearly expressed long-simmering frustrations about politicians’ neglect of their official responsibilities and carry warnings for Republicans who downplay the need for active government.

Significantly, the teachers have been effective in projecting  a compelling message that has captured the popular imagination. Tales of tattered textbooks, crumbling facilities, inadequate programs, and teachers forced to get supplementary jobs or leave for neighboring states with better salaries reinforce a narrative of Republican policy failure.

The message is strongly progressive, critiquing without apology the starve-the-government, coddle-the-wealthy approach replicated in Republican-dominated statehouses around the country. Not only should government commit itself to providing quality education for future generations, say the teachers, but they should do so by raising taxes on those who can afford them rather than through regressive taxes that overburden average citizens. In states dominated by fossil fuel extractors, such as West Virginia and Oklahoma, they argue that government should exact levies, or severance taxes, on non-replaceable resources taken out of the ground and invest the proceeds in funds that benefit the population and prepare for the future.

The full  political repercussions of the protests will not be known until after the completion of state primaries, still ongoing, and the upcoming November elections. But already there are signs that should encourage Democrats in these states, in spite of the fact that the legislatures there are now dominated by Republicans, often by more than two to one majorities, and will not easily be flipped in a single election cycle. Still, a wave of new faces in November armed with a strong message could seriously change the political dynamic and open the door to progressive options in the future.

At the local political level, there has been a surge of new legislative candidates registering in all four states. Many of them, unsurprisingly, are teachers (forty, for instance, in Kentucky alone and “dozens” in Arizona) hoping to displace incumbents. One teacher and another union supporter, both disillusioned Republicans, have already chalked up impressive upsets in early primaries: Travis Benda, who teaches math, toppled Kentucky House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell, a politician once considered untouchable, and Bill Hamilton easily defeated union-baiter Senator Robert Karnes in West Virginia.

State-wide congressional and gubernatorial campaigns could also be affected by teacher energy in November. A governor’s race in Arizona, with Republican incumbent Doug Ducey on the ballot, could spark a strong Democratic challenge because of the governor’s foot-dragging on educational funding in response to teacher demands. Ducey was initially hostile if not insulting to the strikers. Two close U.S. Senate races are also on the line in Arizona and West Virginia, along with a newly competitive Congressional race in Kentucky’s District 6 around Lexington with the entry of Democratic candidate Amy McGrath.

But the most exciting campaign is no doubt Democrat Richard Ojeda‘s fight for West Virginia’s now vacant seat in the 3rd Congressional district. Ojeda is a firm progressive, ex-marine, and man of the people, with tattoos to boot. His fiery populism foreshadowed in some respects the teacher strike itself, which he predicted back in January and coaxed along in its early going. The seat, covering the heart of coal country in Mingo County and the southern reaches of the state would be a sweet catch for the Dems if Ojeda should win. Trump carried it by a full 50 percentage points in 2016. Yet at this juncture, Ojeda’s  charisma and oratorical skills have captured the people’s attention, and he goes into the November elections with over twice the primary votes of any single candidate in either party.

Progressive Democrats should stay tuned. Races like Ojeda’s provide a model of the kind of candidates needing our support in the brave new era of Trump and a clinic in how to conduct an authentic populist campaign.

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How Democracies Die

How Democracies Die (2018), a book by two Harvard political scientists, is a sober view of liberal democracy’s vulnerability in today’s world. The book has achieved attention for focusing on the troubling political forces now at work in the United States. What were once taken as safe assumptions about American  democracy seem no longer so certain under the shadow of Trump’s year-old administration.

Key among these assumptions was the notion that the U.S. was a beacon for humanity, a dependable advocate for democratic values, a leader of the free world. This confidence in American uniqueness rested in good part on the historical premises of the American Republic, enunciated first in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, which expressed the rights-based values of the founders, and then in the Constitution of 1787, which purported to form a republican government with checks and balances and provisions to ensure the rights of citizens. The model of government so produced was instilled in generations of Americans, giving them the assurance that they had a layer of protection that other countries did not have. The danger of a rogue demagogue seemed a distant hypothetical.

But was this confidence of uniqueness only an allusion? The two authors, Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, waste no time in showing how fragile even the most celebrated of democracies with the most water-tight of constitutions can be under extreme stress. Before turning to the U.S., the authors draw on examples of other democracies, with constitutions often directly modeled on the U.S., that were overturned when an authoritarian leader found a way to corrupt the system. Among these examples were the Philippines in 1972 under Ferdinand Marcos and Argentina at various times in the 19th and 20th century.

According to the authors, what was lacking in these countries was not so much the constitutional and legal framework of democracy, but rather certain informal rules and understandings that make democracy work in practice. The authors distill these informal rules, or “guardrails of democracy,” down to two essential ones: “mutual toleration” and what they term “institutional forbearance.” If these simple standards are not shared by all political competitors, democracy easily becomes corrupted.

By “mutual toleration,” the authors mean treating political opponents as essentially legitimate, where winning is important but would exclude attempting to fundamentally discredit or destroy one’s opponents. “Institutional forbearance” means not pushing one’s legal prerogatives to the extreme, that is,  by following not just the letter but the spirit of the law.

Donald Trump’s abuse of such “guardrails” during his campaign for president and in his presidency has raised numerous red flags in the minds of most Americans. In terms of intolerance, Trump from the beginning has belittled, disrespected, and bullied those who oppose or disagree with him. He has made the delegitimizing of opponents into an art form, casting doubt on Obama’s citizenship, connecting Ted Cruz’s father with Lee Harvey Oswald, and calling Hillary Clinton a criminal who deserved to be locked up. He has encouraged violence against his opponents’  supporters at campaign rallies and on one occasion suggested equivalency between anti-Nazis and Nazis. And he has often threatened legal action against critics, both in the opposing party and the news media, which he has famously labeled an “enemy of the people.”

Trump’s lack of institutional forbearance has been egregious in numerous areas. His tendency to treat government as his own personal domain is a prime example. Without explicitly breaking the law, he has felt in no way obliged as head of government to demonstrate transparency about his financial affairs, e.g. via his tax returns, to accept reasonable separation of his businesses from matters of state, to treat the Department of Justice as a professional entity distinct from his own interests, or to keep his children from taking personal advantage of the trappings of power. His carelessness regarding security clearances for appointees, often chosen for frivolous reasons, and his requirements that they sign non-disclosure agreements is further evidence of his placing personal whimsy over accepted process. Trump has also explicitly encouraged the Republican Congress’s ongoing contempt for process as it rushes through judicial appointments and passes critical legislation with no hearings or transparency.

Is there hope of changing the direction of a polarized democracy that seems headed in an authoritarian direction under current leadership? Solutions are easier formulated than achieved since there are fundamental issues that have given rise to the polarization, including racial friction, status insecurity of whites, economic inequality, urban-rural disparities, and the like. For those, Democrats in particular, who wish to strengthen our democracy, it is essential to work to address these underlying issues.

From a policy standpoint, this means supporting things that are inclusive and have universal appeal, including social security, medicare, generous family policy (e.g. paid parental leave), public schools, and programs that do not have means-testing or carve-puts for particular groups. Democrats must think long and hard before taking a strong lurch to the left and thereby risking alienating moderates disgusted by Trump. Strategically, this would mean making alliances with a wider assortment of groups, including mainstream religious and business leaders, and moderate Republicans where they exist. According to the authors, adopting Republican slash-burn tactics and being partisan is the wrong way to go.

On the other hand, moderate Republicans may have to think long-term for solutions on their side of the aisle, given the extremist behavior of Trump and the current Republican Party. At some point, Republicans will have to disown Trumpism, condemn white nationalism, and disassociate itself from the Hannities and Coulters of the world. It looks to the authors like this is too much of a reach, however, given the current complexion of the party base. Only a few good drubbings at the polls may have any effect in stirring the Republicans onto the right path.


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Plutocrats Climb onto the Trump Train

The Koch brothers and their network of donors, gathering at Charles Koch’s exclusive California retreat this January, declared 2017 to be their “most productive year yet.” The event came several weeks after the passing of Trump’s tax-cut legislation, viewed by most observers as a giveaway to billionaires and corporations. In tangible terms, it was a wallet-opening moment. The network divulged that it would commit 400 million dollars to the goal of electing Republican congressional majorities in the 2018 elections in support of Trump’s legislative agenda.

The Kochs’ decidedly positive attitude toward the Trump administration comes in sharp contrast to their hostility toward Trump during the presidential campaign. After supporting several other candidates unsuccessfully in the primaries, they froze their political donations in the presidential race. There was little secret about their reasons: they viewed Trump’s populism as a threat to their corporate libertarian goals. His xenophobic claims and alignment with immigration extremists did not comport well with the Kochs’ free-market, cheap-labor philosophy, while his promises to uphold major social programs signaled a very un-libertarian willingness to curry favor with the masses and to countenance economic redistribution.

Nor did the earliest actions of the Trump administration bring any meaningful change of attitude on the part of the Koch network. When the organization met shortly after Trump’s inauguration, it looked disapprovingly on his executive orders on immigration and his axing of the Pacific Trade Agreement. These actions were only somewhat alleviated by Trump’s assault on regulations, the one bright spot on a dark canvas.

In spite of inauspicious beginnings, some noticeable thawing occurred between Trump and the big donors as the year progressed. One reason was the administration’s hiring of Koch-connected personnel for several strategic positions, resulting in increased exposure to Koch priorities. Many of the appointees were previously involved with Koch satellite organizations, including White House legislative director Marc Short (former leader of Freedom Partners, a Koch donor network) and White House Counsel Donald McGahn (former legal advisor to Freedom Partners). Of particular importance were appointees committed to delivering on the Kochs’ fossil-fuel agenda, notably White House energy aide Mike Catanzaro, an oil industry lobbyist with Koch ties and Samantha Dravis, an employee for Freedom Partners hand-picked by Scott Pruitt to implement deregulation at the EPA.

In addition, the administration felt the increasing influence of rightist Vice-President Mike Pence in the White House and conservative Republican elites in Congress who were sympathetic to many of the Koch brothers’ libertarian ideas. Several must-haves on the Koch wish list were achieved as the year advanced, including the choice of Neil Gorsuch to replace Scalia on the Supreme Court, the abandonment of the Paris Climate Agreement, the disabling of the EPA under Scott Pruitt, the adoption of a privatization education agenda under Betsy DeVos, and the elimination of the Individual Mandate in health care. The clincher, of course, was the December 2017 tax-cut, a sine qua non for the donor class.

To be sure, even as the Trump administration came to accept and  advance many of the Koch brothers’ priorities, the brothers continued to remind the world that they were still independent actors. At their recent gathering they made sure to put in a good word for issues like sentencing reform and the decriminalization of drug laws, where they differ from the Trumpians, to keep their libertarian brand alive.

But, having decided to take advantage of a windfall when it presented itself, the Kochs appear more than content to remain on the Trump train, where they occupy first-class seats. The fact that Trump is a crude and unpredictable agent for their agenda is no longer seen as a stumbling block. As Jonathan Chait has pointed out, Trump presented them with a bargain they could hardly refuse: the prospect of achieving “libertarian ends” by  “authoritarian means.”

The apparent contradiction brings out an unseemly fact about corporate libertarians: namely, for all their talk of liberty, they are generally very accepting of undemocratic, authoritarian methods to achieve their goals. In the Trumpian context, such methods include bullying, arbitrary dictates, and legislative subterfuge.

Indeed, the standard libertarian theme of a government that favors the “makers” of society runs very much counter to the ideals of a democracy based on promoting the common good. Since voters in a democracy tend to support government programs that serve their interests, an authoritarian regime is the only vehicle the donor class can count on to reverse that trend and get the privatized social order it wants. Under today’s impaired American political system, the donors’ best option is to hitch their star to a demagogue who captures the masses with heights of oratory and then sells out to the highest bidder.

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Addressing the Confusion (and Lies) About Sanctuary Cities

On January 25, 2017, days after stepping into office, President Trump issued an executive order entitled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” which threatened to withhold federal grants from any “sanctuary jurisdictions” in the U.S. The pronouncement, which potentially could affect some 150-300 cities and communities that might be construed as “sanctuary” entities, rested its authority on section 1373 of the U.S. code, which requires local governments to permit local officials to send information regarding the citizenship or immigration status of individuals to federal officials, in this case Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The order, it should be emphasized, did not simply order sanctuary jurisdictions to cooperate with federal immigration officials. It threatened them with economic punishment if they did not do so. The aggressive stance, apparently pushed hard and articulated by Bannonists in the White House, was followed by misleading and false statements by administration officials aimed at sanctuary proponents, accusing them of encouraging crime and endangering American lives.

The recent passing of pro-sanctuary legislation, including California’s Sanctuary Law, effective on January 1, 2018, have brought the administration’s threats to a new level. Acting head of ICE, Thomas Homan, suggested in one interview that politicians instituting sanctuary policies should be charged with criminal offenses. Anti-immigration voices on social media and sundry news outlets have chimed in with a drumbeat of outrage. In its recent coverage, for example, Fox News featured misleading comments by sanctuary opponents and a photograph of a highway sign in California erected by unidentified individuals stating “Official Sanctuary State: Felons, Illegals and MS13 Welcome! Democrats Need the Votes.”

For their part, sanctuary supporters have launched law suits questioning the constitutionality of Trump’s executive order. Progressive writers like Ian Reifowitz on Daily Kos and sites like Lawfare have tried to clarify the issues and make the progressive argument for sanctuary. States like California have publicly debated the issue. But the mainstream media has been largely AWOL on sanctuary, and the challenges of overcoming the Trumpian law-and-order fog is considerable. Amongst the general public there is general confusion about most aspects of sanctuary, and polls reflect it.

To help dispel some of the confusion, we offer answers to a few common questions that often arise about the sanctuary issue:

Q: What is a sanctuary jurisdiction?

A: There is no agreed upon definition. Advocates like Mayor Eric Garrett of Los Angeles as well as opponents like John Kelley, former head of the Department of Homeland Security, have shied away from the question. But here is a stab at it: A sanctuary jurisdiction is a state or locality that adopts policies that minimize, consistent with the U.S. Constitution, its cooperation with federal immigration authorities seeking to find and remove illegal immigrants with no criminal record.

Q: What is the rationale for instituting sanctuary policies in the first place?

A: The purpose of sanctuary policies is to safeguard communities from federal intervention that has the potential to disrupt, divide, and instill fear among their residents. By insulating local law enforcement from involvement in federal round-ups, such policies enhance the sort of trust between local police and residents that enables individuals to report crimes and problems without fear of being deported for immigration violations. Far from protecting criminal gangs and drug cartels, as opponents claim, sanctuary policies help to isolate such elements and make them less able to find refuge in the surrounding population.

Q: Is there a historical precedent for sanctuary policies?

A: Yes, many cities have been relying on sanctuary policies since the 1980s and 90s, although the policies were once not called by that name. Police departments have mostly been strongly in favor of them because they promoted good relations between law enforcement and residents. Trump-supporter Rudy Giuliani governed New York City for years, for example, with policies that prevented heavy-handed federal intervention and maintained good relations with immigrant communities.

Q: Don’t federal authorities have the right to  demand that local and state authorities cooperate in enforcing federal law?

A: It depends a lot on what degree of cooperation is meant. In general, states and local authorities have wide autonomy in choosing whether to deploy their resources, already stretched in most cases, for the purpose of enforcing federal laws. Nowhere does the Constitution expressly empower the federal government to force states to do so. Moreover, the 10th Amendment to the Constitution asserts that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Thus efforts by the federal government to force states and localities to use their resources to enforce federal laws, often described as “commandeering,” are generally viewed by courts as coercive and unacceptable. Among other things, they conflict with the notion of federalism and the division of power. According to Jane Chong, a scholar writing for, “commandeering infringes on state sovereignty by allowing the federal government to shift the financial burden of its policies to the states and also to escape political accountability by confusing voters about where to lay the blame or credit for those policies.”

Q: Short of commandeering, do federal authorities have the right to require lesser kinds of cooperation from the states, such as providing information to assist in enforcing federal laws?

A: This is a cloudier area than outright “commandeering,” since such a requirement is less burdensome to the state or community. Section 1373 itself, the ordinance referred to in Trump’s January 25 executive order, is an information-related directive couched in careful language to make it appear not too coercive. It requires local governments to permit their officials to send information regarding the citizenship or immigration status of any individual to federal authorities like ICE. The courts will eventually have a chance to decide whether this is constitutional. Even if it is so considered, many sanctuary jurisdictions render the issue moot by already agreeing to supply information on the citizenship or immigration status of individuals. San Francisco argues, for example, that it is actually in compliance with 1373.

Q: Are there any recent court precedents that limit the ability of federal authorities to require cooperation from states in enforcing federal law?

A: Yes. In Printz v. United States, decided in 1997 by the Supreme Court, the majority ruled that the Brady Bill threatened the “residual and inviolable sovereignty” of the states by “commandeering” sheriffs to perform background checks on gun buyers, in violation of the 10th Amendment. Right-leaning Justice Antonin Scalia was the author of the opinion, an ironic twist given that people on the right are now demanding states and localities comply with federal enforcement demands.

Q: Opponents of sanctuary policies assert that such policies protect criminals. Is this true?

A: This is a common misperception. Although they try to shield law-abiding immigrants from federal round-ups, sanctuary jurisdictions are just as interested in stopping criminals as anybody else. Indeed, they “routinely” cooperate with ICE in deporting actual criminals. Sanctuary legislation makes this possible. For example, California’s new sanctuary law, in effect since January 1, enables police and sheriffs to transfer people to immigration authorities if they have been convicted within the last 15 years of any one of some 800 felonies and misdemeanors.

Q: Can federal authorities actually withhold funds from so-called sanctuary entities as a means of punishing them?

A: This is mostly a bogus threat with little constitutional basis. Congress does have some power to punish states for non-compliance by inserting penalties in the relevant legislation, and even then, only under certain conditions. The precedent for this is Dakota v. Dole (1987), a case in which the Supreme Court upheld Congress’ requirement that states be penalized a certain percent of highway funds if they failed to establish a drinking age of 21. But the penalty had to be related to the purpose of the legislation, in this case highway safety, and be unambiguous.

The executive branch is much more limited than Congress in establishing penalties, and would need a clear rationale and congressional authority to go ahead with them, probably unrealistic hurdles for the Trump administration. Moreover, most federal grants to states are untouchable since some 65% of them come in the form of mandated funding like Medicaid.  Although there is some executive room for partiality built into the federal government’s discretionary budget, it would probably not be enough to seriously affect state and local recipients.

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The Trump-Republican Tax Cut: What Were They Thinking?

As a mental exercise, let’s ask the following question: what if Trump and the Republicans, instead of tilting their tax-cut legislation heavily towards corporations and the rich, had come up with a bill that truly favored white middle class voters, their biggest constituency?

One wonders, indeed, how politicians interested in their own survival could have done otherwise. Devising a less extreme bill would have fulfilled promises by candidate Trump to provide for his base voters and energized them for the next election. It would, meanwhile, have given the wider electorate at least some reason to believe the Republicans were governing competently. Democratic counter-attacks against the tax-cut bill based on claims of unfairness would have been blunted even if the Republicans had tucked some plums for corporations into the bill.

Instead, the Republicans, in league with Trump, produced a heavy-handed pro-corporate bill with just minor window dressing for  the majority of Americans. The process has been well documented. Trump let it be known early on that he wanted a big reduction in the corporate tax because of the apparent higher rates suffered by American corporations in comparison with their overseas competitors (ignoring the fact that because of loopholes in the tax code, the Americans were easily circumventing the higher rates). At the same time, billionaire lobbyists, viewing the bill as a unique opportunity, were applying maximum pressure on the Republican Congress to endorse the lower rates, threatening to defund non-compliant legislators in the coming elections if they did not come around. The current bill is the result.

It is important to remember that in the pre-Trump era, all this might have been politically feasible given the party’s past success in championing the interests of the rich while keeping white middle class voters happy by throwing culture-war rhetoric and paeans to liberty in their direction. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas discusses the phenomenon.

In today’s Trumpian world, however, those old tricks can no longer be counted on. Trump altered the political environment by stoking class warfare against America’s elites. Significantly, in that warfare he targeted not just the liberal ones of past campaigns, but the Republican Old Guard itself, which tends to favor globalism, free trade, and liberal immigration policies that ensure an ample work force and low wages. In the process, the base moved to the right, reminded of its unaddressed class grievances and feeling newly empowered. The donor class in the meantime stood still.

With the passing of the tax bill, Trump and the Republicans clearly saddled themselves with a problem of their own making. On the one hand, Trump muddled his political brand. Often a captive of his own incoherent propaganda, Trump seemed to think that he could, at one and the same time, be two largely incompatible things: a populist voice for the marginalized white middle class and a proponent of corporate behemoths like himself. The conflict put at odds, as never before, the rabble-rousing Bannon wing of the party and the corporatist wing associated with Goldman Sachs players like Gary Cohen and Mnuchin.

To make things worse for the Republicans, their elected officials have been unable to shed their long-standing association with the wealthy elites, a fact amplified by Paul Ryan’s unrelenting advocacy for libertarian policy. The growing populism of the Republican base has put such Republicans in an increasingly untenable position. If anything, their dependence on the big donors has deepened as their repute with the middle and lower class Americans has dwindled.

Trump and elected Republicans thus have their work cut out for them as they prepare to face the voters in 2018. They must defend corporatist legislation that gives mere crumbs to the white middle class and knocks a huge hole in the federal deficit. Calls by Ryan and others for a “reform” of programs like Medicaid and Medicare to make up for lost revenue can already be heard backstage. As the great messaging campaign begins, it will be interesting to watch the Republicans try to square the circle. Good luck, guys.

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The Worldviews of Donald Trump and Roy Moore

Recently, commentators have been making suggestive comparisons between Donald Trump and Roy Moore in the wake of the sex scandals uncovered in Moore’s Alabama senate campaign. The similarity between the two men in their personal misbehavior is apt and well documented. But as important as this issue is, another one has been scarcely touched upon: the close similarity between the two on political and ideological grounds.

At first the parallel seems counter-intuitive. How can two people with such alien backgrounds, one a product of a secular Queens gated community, the other a native son of the Bible Belt, be closely similar in political outlook and behavior?

One could answer first by showing that Trump and Moore both score high marks on scales of meanness, mendacity, and authoritarianism. Trump’s maltreatment of people, his abuse of facts, his highhandedness toward institutions that are meant to prevent the undue accrual of executive power are well codified. Moore’s behavior is less well known, but no less egregious. On the bench, Moore has repeatedly shown overt bigotry and intolerance toward those who do not share his biblical morality or belief system. He claims to be an admirer of the U.S. Constitution while willfully misinterpreting its written words. And he has repeatedly acted in a cavalier and authoritarian manner in his role as an Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, refusing twice to obey federal court orders and facing dismissal in each instance.

Both Trump and Moore, moreover, come across as apostles of fear and desperation. They exude a palpable sense of victimization at the hand of so-called dark forces and a predilection for evoking grand conspiracies. One could almost use Richard Hofstadter’s phrase “paranoid style” to describe the phenomenon.

To fully understand the Trump-Moore parallel, it is worth taking a close look at their actual political worldviews, to the extent that they are known to us, and exploring their approaches on such things as tribalism, truth, and law.

Moore’s “worldview” is easier to identify than Trump’s since it has a definable religious origin. It is an ideology of sorts, known to right-wing evangelicals as “Christian Worldview,” having served as a defining stance for the Religious Right since the rise of that movement in the late 1970s. Widely expounded on the internet and in conservative Christian academies and home-schooling texts, it serves as the movement’s credo.

Christian Worldview, in brief, stipulates that the world is divided between two antagonistic groups, Christians and non-Christians; that secularism is out to destroy Christianity; and that culture war between the two groups is inevitable. In line with this polarized view of the world, it asserts an epistemology (theory of knowledge) that takes a hostile view of secular knowledge, especially science, which it brands as the distorted worldview of the enemy. Secular knowledge can only be approached with the protective armor of God’s guidance.

Clinging to the idea of truth as based on God’s thought as modeled in the Bible, Christian Worldview denies the possibility of neutral or universally accepted axioms in the pursuit of truth. Roy Moore is a true exemplar of this sort of worldview thinking. It is especially evident in his most striking political claims, notably the notion that the American Constitution must be seen through a biblical lens and that God’s law supersedes human law.

By contrast, the untethered Mr. Trump has no such clear and well-articulated system to guide him in how he sees the world. His attitudes indicate that he is basically nonreligious and unprincipled, and his overall outlook fluid and personal. Nonetheless, his worldview, to the extent it can be gleaned from his tweets and actions, seems to share many of the same attributes as Moore’s.

Trump’s worldview, like Moore’s, displays a keen sense of being vulnerable and embattled. It is based on a polarized view of reality, where friendly and hostile forces confront each other in a state of conflict. The opposing forces are defined by Trump’s common trope of winners and losers. Winners are hard working and industrious, while losers are unproductive and undeserving. The world as Trump sees it is not “great” because winners like himself are squeezed and placed on the defensive by a liberal establishment that “rigs” the system to benefit unworthy losers (especially minorities, foreigners, women) and upholds political correctness and the expansion of rights. The only possible corrective is reversing the situation by rewarding the truly deserving, whom he identifies with the traditional white working class and its business allies.

Trump’s epistemology, like that of Christian worldviewers, is ultimately tribal. That is, “my” facts are right while the facts of the other tribe are false. While Moore reaches this conclusion through a God-centered ideology, Trump reaches it through a delusional form of narcissism. In both cases, however, there are no neutral arbiters of the truth, since experts, scientists, academics, and journalists are deemed to be mere mouthpieces for the enemy. The truth is simply what Trump or Moore say it is based on their epistemological assumptions.

In sum, Trump and Moore represent two central elements of the Republican coalition, the party’s xenophobic anti-immigration wing and the Christian Right. Together, they coalesce around similar impulses and now pose a genuine threat to American democracy. They consciously encourage tribal passions, undermine facts and truth through non-transparency and fake news (making it difficult for citizens to make informed choices necessary for democracy to function), and launch frontal attacks on institutions, especially the courts and the press, that get in the leader’s way.

The trend toward authoritarianism could not be more stark.

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Creative Destruction, or Just Destruction?

The Trump administration’s efforts to disrupt the political world in recent months should be no surprise to anyone. After all, Trump promised to be disrupter-in-chief if elected and to “shake things up.” His supporters on the right were happy to ride on this train, claiming that such an approach would clear the debris of the current system and lead to lots of fresh ideas.

A favorite theme they embraced was the notion of “creative destruction.” The term was made popular by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the evolving, destructive power of capitalism, in particular its tendency to undermine old structures in the process of creating new, more efficient ones. Because of the term’s somewhat mordant irony, political commentators have not hesitated to employ it in reference to political change as well.

Newt Gingrich was one of the first users of the theme during the primaries, seeing  Trump’s candidacy as analogous to “kicking over the table.” It amounted to a bid to overturn and replace political correctness, big bureaucracies, current trade policies, public employee unions, and the like. He framed it both as an “American rebellion” and a “consumer revolt.” Later in the primary season, Ilana Mercer, a “paleo-libertarian” and recent author of The Trump Revolution, saw “creative destruction” as a means of upending a similar list of “sacred cows.” She equated Donald Trump with a “force of nature” heralding  a new age.

And now with the new age upon us, Richard Manning of Fox News uses the motif to describe such accomplishments as Trump’s spirited junking of a long list of economic and immigration regulations and his “re-ordering” of American world interests beginning with the rejection of the TPP, all in the happy cause of a “complete rebooting of the system.”

Such appeals to destruction and the creative process are worth noting because they offer some sort of overall framework for Trump’s actions. The problem is that while the “destruction” part is clear to the observer, the “creative” part seems elusive. What happens after step one is never clearly depicted or expressed.

The inattention to the aftermath of destruction is nowhere better illustrated than in the Trump administration’s approach to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). With little interest in the details of legislation, Trump simply wished to be rid of the existing program as quickly as possible. Any combination of repeal, replace, and delay would suffice for him. Handing the issue off to a Republican Congress, Trump cheered on what became a top-down, secretive process that skipped all ordinary order and procedure. The deadly consequences of the bills that were fielded in the House and Senate according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office were never taken seriously by Trump or the vast majority of Republicans, who gave a “What me worry?” shrug in the face of them. By a quirk of fortune we were spared the deadly consequences by a last-minute moment of honesty in the Senate.

The notion of creative destruction seems similarly off the mark in describing Trump’s international behavior. Trump’s withdrawal, or threatened withdrawal, from a series of multilateral agreements including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and lately the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) presents the international community with few if any positive options.

Indeed, given the time required to bring together multiple actors and reach intricate compromise in political compacts like the Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Agreement–over a decade in each case–the possibility of their unraveling presents an ever-present danger and not exactly fertile ground for creativity. The model of the second law of thermodynamics comes to mind.

Moreover, Trump’s peevish opposition to international trade agreements raises the prospect of grave economic disruption. His simplistic proposal of bilateral talks to replace multilateral ones is a poison pill for most nations because they have everything to lose by them. Unlike multilateral agreements, which present a relatively level playing field and a common set of rules for all participating countries, bilateral ones enable powerful nations (notably, the U.S.) to use their negotiating leverage to hold the upper hand and to introduce unique requirements to guarantee their ascendancy. It is hardly surprising that in the wake of Trump’s sinking of the TPP, countries like Japan have shown little interest in bilateral talks with the U.S., instead holding out for an agreement in concert with other Pacific nations. The fluidity of the issue puts the future of trade relations in a state of high uncertainty.

The sad fact, as suggested by the above examples, is that the Trump  administration governs largely by impulse, with scant signs of reasoned forethought. Behind the recent flurry of pronouncements and decisions lies a strange void, something that hangs almost like an uncompleted sentence. Not since the illogical conduct of Wilhelm II’s Germany on the eve of World War I has a world power shown itself so strategically inept. It is entirely possible that those who come after Trump will look back upon his administration as an historic model of political malpractice. The message to all politicians: First, do no harm.

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Putin-philia on the American Right

Trump’s adoration for Putin is not an anomaly in today’s American politics. Such at least is the gist of Jeremy Peters’ recent article in the New York Times , which shows that figures on the American right have been lauding Putin’s virtues for some time. Although mainstream Republicans have not yet adopted the same thinking, figures like Rudolph Giuliani, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and various Fox News personalities have been expressing for a while their awe of Putin’s strong-arm tactics, his embodiment of conservative values, and his defense of Western civilization against its enemies. This tendency makes Donald Trump’s unconventional stance towards Putin more acceptable to conservatives, even given their traditional strong aversion to Russian power.

The key point is that the phenomenon of Putinphilia preceded Trump and made his position relatively easy to take. Most obviously, praise of Putin during the Obama administration served as a tempting way for rightists to mock a black, liberal president. The aggressive Russian leader stood out as a jolting contrast to the cerebral Obama. Critics who hated Obama’s  globalist tendencies, his caution in foreign policy, and his personal coolness found Putin the perfect foil.

But just as significant, the Putin fad reveals underlying right-wing trends in both Russia and the United States that should not be ignored. Putin’s Russia has increasingly viewed itself as a fortress of sorts against Western-style democracy, globalism, and so-called cultural decadence. Employing an ethnic brand of nationalism, it has identified with and funded some of Europe’s neo-fascistic movements, including those in Hungary, France, and Greece. And particularly since the beginning of Putin’s third term (post-2012), the government has adopted an ultra-conservative stance in alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

In this latter regard, Russia’s elections in 2012 stand as a significant turning point. The elections, which Putin won, were accompanied by mass protests against corruption in his government. Rightly or wrongly, Putin believed that they were clandestinely funded by Western entities and supported by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. His close cooperation with the ROC became more salient following these events, as he began to crack down on Western liberal influences. Feminists and the LGBT community, who condemned his traditionalist approach, were the first in the line of fire. Legislation passed in the next couple of years signaled the new trend: a strict law regulating the foreign adoption of Russian children so as to disqualify countries that recognized same-sex adopters (2012); a law making it a crime “to insult the feelings of believers” (2013); and a law outlawing so-called anti-gay propaganda, essentially a ban on free speech. Behind these laws was an angry, almost vindictive militance.

Meanwhile on the American side of the equation, various forces on the right were warming up to what they saw happening in Putin’s Russia. Even as far back as the 1990s when things were chaotic under Boris Yeltsin, the U.S. Religious Right viewed Russia as a field of opportunity and began to increase its evangelical activities there. But Putin’s recent social conservatism has brought a cultural embrace of sorts. Major evangelists like Franklin Graham have made no secret of their affinity for the regime for its position on gay rights, the blurring of church state divisions, and abortion. The TV evangelist Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association lauds Putin as a promoter of the Christian cause, calling him a “Lion of Christianity.” A key organization of the Christian Right for global outreach, the World Congress for Families, which exports homophobia under the name of protecting the “natural family,” has found  eager partners in today’s Russia. A conference in 2016 took place in Tbilisi, Georgia. Even the Putin regime’s recent religious favoritism toward the ROC at the expense of Western evangelical churches has not damaged the relationship.

American white nationalists have likewise crooned over the Putin  regime. In recent years, neo-fascist Richard Spencer, white supremacist David Duke, and Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party have all expressed strong approval of Putin’s Russia. They have been drawn to the aggressive expression of ethnic nationalism, anti-globalism in the Breitbart mode, and attacks on liberal democracy.  Duke and Spencer view Russia as nothing short of a beacon of white civilization. Heimbach calls Putin the “leader of the free world” and speaks of Russia as the home of a new “Traditionalist International” in the model of Stalin’s Comintern. For all of them, Putin serves as a stern rebuke of today’s tolerant American ethos and represents the last best hope for the survival of “white” civilization.

It’s too soon to say whether Putinphilia will become a permanent feature of American politics. Already polls show that at least half of the Republican electorate takes a favorable view of Putin. On the other hand, most elected Republicans and self-styled conservatives, still influenced by canons of individual freedom, still seem to find the embrace of a heavy-handed Russian strong man hard to swallow. Their recent legislative support of sanctions against Russia, even in the face of Trump’s displeasure, is an indication of that view. The real test will be whether Republican voters begin electing Russiaphiles and brazen nationalists into office. A tendency in favor of overt authoritarianism would drastically alter America’s political system and be an indication that Trump was not simply a lone black swan.

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Why the Left Excels at Political Humor and the Right Not So Much

It is almost a cliché that political humor is owned by the left. One can’t help but be bowled over by the number of liberal-leaning comedians sucking up oxygen on the airwaves. For a long while it was people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the satirists at Saturday Night Live (SNL). Now it continues with late night stars Colbert, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers backed by their impressive staffs, SNL with impersonators such as Alec Baldwin (Donald Trump) and Melissa McCarthy (Sean Spicer), and start-up artists like John Oliver and Samantha Bee offering in-depth coverage of current issues. If one is politically blue and digs comedy, there is a a lot of choice on the dial.

In contrast, there seems to be a relative deficit of conservative comic artists on TV today, or at least ones whose names are familiar. Although the right can claim several talented comedians, they simply do not have the audience appeal or renown of their liberal counterparts. Dennis Miller, who has appeared frequently on Bill O’Reilly’s show, is one of the better ones. But he is the exception who more or less proves the rule.

So what’s going on here? Alison Dagnes, author of a recent book on political humor entitled A Conservative Walks into a Bar, considers several possible reasons for the phenomenon.

To begin with, there is the question of occupational bias, raised by many conservative comedians themselves. The claim is that they are excluded because liberals dominate the comedy power structure in TV and Hollywood. While there may be something to this, it does not explain why conservative comics who do make it to TV, whether on cable or the major networks, have much more trouble developing audiences than liberal comedians. The imbalance may, indeed, have more to do with factors such as the untraditional nature of the job and the process of self-selection. Let’s face it, comedy is an art form that is usually not financially rewarding in the same way as a career in, say, business or finance, where conservatives dominate. Like anthropology and social work, comedy just seems to draw more liberals than conservatives.

But perhaps more to the point, comedy tends to reflect a worldview that is less natural for conservatives, one that broadly relativistic and critical. In particular, it does not feel constrained to respect many of the traditional verities considered out of bounds by conservatives. When it takes on political subjects and turns to satire, the comic spirit becomes iconoclastic, showing a tendency to challenge taboos and sacred cows. Comedy in the conservative vein finds itself at a disadvantage since, by taking certain things about the established order as above reproach, it has lesser flexibility and  smaller reach. Sometimes, in struggling to maintain ideological consistency, it borders on preachiness, that true enemy of the comic muse.

Various recent attempts by conservatives to launch humor programs on TV, no doubt hoping to challenge the dominance of comedians like Jon Stewart, only demonstrate some of these problems. One such attempt, a show called “The Flip Side” launched in 2015, tries to work comedy around traditional conservative themes. But with clumsy presentation and stale subject matter more reflective of the Reagan era, it gives the impression of being poorly conceived and inadequately financed.

More famously, Roger Ailes, launched an earlier experimental program called “The Half-Hour News Hour.” Seeking to inject comedy with a conservative slant into issues like climate change, gun control, and the like, the program often comes across as heavy-handed. One of the episodes features a liberal gun-control advocate being questioned by a couple of interviewers. The advocate gives three examples of where he is annoyed by people with guns, one a lady in a park, the second a homeowner, the third a bank employee. It soon becomes obvious that the interviewee is a thief who has found guns to be a troublesome barrier to committing his crimes in each of the cases. The humor, someone’s idea of heavy irony, could well be mistaken for ideological propaganda.

Not surprisingly, Ailes’ Half-Hour News Hour turned out to be less than successful. With abysmal ratings, the program lasted only 13 episodes. It demonstrates what happens when a promoter with a tin-ear for humor and less than full commitment tries something out of his depth.

The above examples underscore the principle that for comedy to succeed it has to be funny before all else. The comedian’s political commitment to one sider or the other should be distinctly secondary to that first axiom. The success of a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert bears this out. Ever conscious of the spirit of the times, these artists feel no need to remind audiences of their liberal credentials, being perfectly comfortable making jokes about Obama, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and the like, even if they may find it more natural pillorying Bush and Trump. Conservative humorists, on the other hand, apparently more wedded to ideological consistency, generally do not share the same flexibility.

Liberals should not necessarily take comfort from the right’s lackluster performance on the comic front. There is a downside to having opponents who prefer ideology to laughter. I agree with Peter Weber at The Week who maintains that humor is a universal good that makes all of us better people. It allows individuals on both sides of the aisle to deal with defeat, put aside fear, and avoid turning to hate. By putting some of the grim aspects of politics into perspective, it takes the edge out of political animosity. For these reasons, one should hope that conservatives learn to be better comedians.

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