Friday, April 13, 2018

A Pivotal Week?

In the midst of a slow-moving crisis, one never knows when a turning point has arrived. After a slow dribble of news for months, how many realized the “Saturday night massacre” was the moment Nixon was done? It was only in retrospect, after Nixon didn’t press the government into a Constitutional crisis, that we could see that was the pivotal moment.

Because so much of what Trump does is orders of magnitude more bizarre and norm-shattering than previous presidents, his tenure seems to resist the “pivotal moment” narrative. And yet, it feels like something has shifted this week.

There’s the usual parade of horribles, though this week was especially bad (the raid on his lawyer’s house, the unfolding Pruitt corruption scandal, Jim Comey’s book, stories about a secret love child, his weird battle against Bezos/post office, etc). But something more significant happened when Paul Ryan stepped aside. Trump’s position of relative strength has always depended on his Congressional lackeys. As long as he could run a deeply corrupt, chaotic, and imcompetent administration without losing their support, he has been untouchable.

Much is arrayed against him, though. His approval is maddeningly high for his actual performance, but historically low. He has made enemies with federal law enforcement and rank-and-file federal workers. Democrats are not just planning their anti-Trump strategy, but using the disaster of his presidency to entirely reorder politics in the US, overturning GOP structural advantages and entirely dispensing with GOP-defined right wing conventional wisdom on issues across the board. So long as that Democratic project looked like typical Democratic blue sky talk they couldn’t deliver on, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

But into this 18-month stalemate of the Trump era, Paul Ryan’s retirement looks like a hole in the dike. If the power centers of the Republican Party can no longer manage the balance between their rabid base and the realities of this administration, Trump’s position becomes far more tenuous. We tend to think of his problems as fundamentally legal—that’s the footing of the Mueller probe—but they’ve always been political. There is no Constitutional remedy for Trump except the political (the use of the 25th amendment, in this case, very much included). Trump has survived not in spite of his corruption and incompetence, but because of Congressional GOP support. If that softens, things could change quickly and dramatically. This week, it felt like that softening was becoming real.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Op-Ed Diversity Does Not Include Liberals


The mainstream press has been spending the Trump era trying to figure out how to “diversify” their op-ed pages, which always means adding more conservative voices. The latest example of this was when The Atlantic hired and almost immediately fired Kevin Williamson, a hardcore conservative who has routinely written outrageous and inflammatory articles for the National Review (and his Twitter feed was even more toxic).

I don’t actually mind the impulse to add variety to the op-ed page. (As a liberal, it’s part of my value system, one notably absent in the values of conservatives whose publications—WSJ, National Review, etc—do not feature liberal voices.) But what’s really amazing is how the lack of diversity is never addressed by moving to the left of Paul Krugman. I am considered uncomfortably conservative by most of my friends, and yet my actual views would be considered unacceptably out of the mainstream by Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg. For examples, I support:
  • Socialized medicine (eg, Britain’s); 
  • A full slate of pro-labor policies and
  • Taxes and regulations that would curtail corporate power and generational personal fortunes;
  • A much smaller military;
  • Full denuclearization;
  • Full withdrawal from the Middle East;
  • Carbon taxes;
  • Massive spending to address climate change;
  • Effective open borders (to non-terrorists and criminals);
  • Repealing the 2nd amendment...

And it goes on and on in this vein. Again, a majority of people in my orbit consider me too conservative because I support things like the TPP and free trade. And yet my views—held by a huge number of mainstream European parties—are considered so radical that they never appear on the pages of the Atlantic or the New York Times. To editors at these publications, views like Kevin Williamson’s are mainstream and important and need airing. Views like mine are literally unthinkable.

This is the most potent indictment I have for the state of our national politics in the United States in 2018.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

How Long is Fifty Years?

Today, at 8am, I became a half-centurion. (I’m told the second half is harder.) Birthdays are good times to survey the sweep of time, and for some reason, humans are really attracted to decades, so I’ve been thinking more this year than I did last year—or will next year. So...

I was born in 1968, a pivotal year in world history; few in the 20th century had more resonance, nor long-lasting influence. That was the year MLK and RFK were assassinated. LBJ signed the civil rights act. It was the year of the Tet Offensive and My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War. There were riots at the Democratic National Convention, riots following MLK's assassination, and riots protesting the Vietnam War. Riots happened worldwide, as well, and for example brought France to a standstill. In January, Prague Spring began to loosen the bonds of Communism, but Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in August to clamp them back down. Astronauts orbited the moon and humans saw its far side for the first time. Perhaps most descriptively, the past five decades have been bracketed by Richard Nixon, elected that year, and Donald Trump, sitting in the White House fifty years later. The violence, chaos, confusion, and wonder born in 1968 continues to play out today.

How long is fifty years?

Consider that I was an adult the first time I used a computer. In the spring of 1986 as a graduating high school senior, I received the tool all college-bound students required: a typewriter. Once on campus, though, I was guided to a "lab" (read: extremely grim basement closet) filled with Macintoshes--one of the first cohorts to begin typing up term papers on computer. I have a distinct sense-memory of the continuous squawk of the dot-matrix printer, the smell of ink, and the headache-inducing light of bare fluorescent (and buzzing) bulbs.

I was in graduate school before the internet was commercially available (there were only about a million users worldwide in 1993). We were all given new email accounts (jalworth@wisc.edu), but had to use them--once again--in labs were computers were equiped to access the internet. Later, of course, we were able to get home modems for snail-slow access. (If you're too young to have had pre-wifi connections, please go listen to this. It was the sound the computer made each time it connected to the internet. Believe it or not, I have a fond, warm association to this howling--which at the time sounded like the future.)

As an adolescent and young adult, restaurants had "nonsmoking areas," which were inevitably a grimy little corner near the kitchen of four tables in a room hazy with blue smoke. You could could get on a plane and fire up a Marlboro as late as 1990. Up until the 1970s, there were just three channels on the television, and they didn't broadcast 24 hours. At a certain point in the wee hours, local channels broadcast a visual of the American flag and played the national anthem, after which the screen went to static. Honest to God.

The world was much, much larger—psychically, at least. I spent the academic year of 1988-'89 in India. Telephones were exceedingly rare and few people had them in their homes. To place a call, we had to go to a public phone and wait in line. For international calls, which cost $7 a minute ($15 in current dollars), we were given precisely three minutes until the phone went dead. Letters took a month to travel between the countries. We had to carry our own money with us because banks didn't transfer money and ATMs didn't yet exist. (And if we lost our cash we were entirely screwed.) When I stepped out into the welter of noise and activity on an Indian street in 1988, I did it without GPS. If I got lost in Old Delhi or in a rural district between large cities, I was on my own. (This happened more than once.) An iPhone now connects Portland and Bodh Gaya (where I have friends traveling at this moment) so that live video can provide real-time tours. Back then, we snapped photos on analog film and developed them, months later, back in the States.
 
Fifty years ago, the largest (known) threat was nuclear annihilation. It's difficult to communicate how present this felt. As a kid growing up in the '70s and '80s I was so certain nuclear war would end life on the planet that I grieved I would never learn to drive a car. We now face a more serious threat in global warming, but unlike nuclear war, it is so diffuse and slow-moving most Americans spend no time worrying about it.

​Crime was bad. Until about the mid-90s my car got proven into so often that I just started leaving the doors unlocked. Muggings weren’t that common in Portland, but they were in other big cities, and the fear of it cast a pall of menace over cities.

And of course, ​if you weren’t straight or white or male, life was a lot harder in 1968. It’s hard to believe—or even imagine—that a law had to be signed to give African-Americans free access to the ballot. If you were gay, life was very hard (Stonewall was still a year away). If you were trans, forget about it. Mad Men gives a good sense of what it was like to be a woman in the workplace for my first two or three decades.

When my grandparents died in the early 90s, I considered what they’d seen in their lives. The early half of the 20th century was the most dramatic period of change in world history. (We started fighting wars with horses and ended dropping nukes. Electricity, indoor plumbing, cars, planes—it was a time of radical transformation.) I knew no generation would ever see the change they had and always considered my own age a denouement to the age of transformation. But now, looking backward from this half-century of life, I see that each age is marked by change. Fifty years is a long time. We don’t think of fifty-year-olds as that elderly, and yet the mental space they occupy (history always begins the day we’re born) reaches back to times unrecognizeable to modern eyes. Even to those of us who experienced them.

In nearly every way, the world is a better place now than it was when I was born. We still have some serious challenges (climate change! 😬), but even in these fractious times, life is all right. Happy to have seen this 50-year window of the world—

Friday, January 12, 2018

Finding Our Humanity

In case you missed it—though I can’t imagine how you would!—Donald Trump said this yesterday:

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” People focused on the profanity, but that wasn’t the obscene part of the quote. It began with this: “What do we want Haitians here for? Why do we want all these people from Africa here?” It ended with this: “We should have people from places like Norway.”

We do not need to consider the subtext; in this comment it is plainly the text. (This morning, Trump’s claiming he didn’t swear, but acknowledged he did use “tough language,” which is to say he confirmed the worst part.)

By coincidence, I was reading this morning about Obama’s appearance on David Letterman’s new show and, as always, he was gracious and generous. He refused to take a shot at Trump. The juxtaposition of these two events made me think. When Obama was elected, this is the way he conducted himself. In order to stoke their sense of outrage, adversaries had to turn to comments like he made after Trayvon Martin was killed (when Obama said, uncontroversially, that if he’d had a son, he’d look like Trayvon). Obama never gave people the ammunition to indict him as a racially divisive figure. It highlighted the obvious truth: people unhinged by Obama were offended by *who we was*, not what he did.

The obverse of this is those same people’s attitudes toward Trump. No matter what he does or says, his base acquits him. And for the same reason: they continue to support him no matter what he does, because of who he is.

Our country is in a raw, poisonous place because so often we essentialize our adversaries. We dehumanize them. This is clear with Trump and his “shithole” tirade. In fact, his whole political movement has been built on the venom he exhibits for those outside his tribe. (It’s so disorienting to live in a country where the president directly targets large swaths of the citizenry of his own country.) But Trump is just the gasoline on the fire.

As we enter 2018, I’m increasingly aware of that tendency in my own mind. I succumbed to it too often in 2017. I too often spent my time hate-reading the news to feed my anger. But that has two baleful consequences: I poison myself and feel terrible, and I succumb to Trump’s worldview of dehumanization.

It is hard to try to stop the cycle before it begins, but I’m going to spend more time trying. The way we as a country—and as human beings—pull out of this nosedive is by filling our mind with kindness and generosity rather than hate and extending those feelings outward.

I am trying to use this latest outrage by Trump as a way to remind myself of all the people in those countries, the human beings, and how most of them are wonderful, positive people—even those living in difficult circumstances. I’m thinking of our wonderful, messy country, populated by the children of immigrants who came to escape difficult circumstances in earlier generations.
We have to find a way to connect to our shared humanity. It is the most radical antidote to this situation we find ourselves in.

Monday, January 08, 2018

A Hard No on Oprah

After she gave a fairly anodyne (albeit stirring) 9-minute speech to a room full of Hollywood elites, news orgs are now batting around the idea that Oprah should be president. *This* is the legacy of Trump’s election. Instead of considering whether a candidate is qualified to be president, Americans will now ask whether the candidate is more qualified than a deranged megalomaniac. (And the answer will always be yes.)

I have nothing against Oprah—though I’m mystified by her enduring popularity and find her fans cultish—but let’s be clear: she’s wildly unfit to be president of the United States. To her credit, she runs a powerful media empire (and, contra Trump, without criminality and periodic bankruptcy). To her detriment, that experience isn’t remotely relevant. She has no experience in: foreign policy, public policy, government, elections, elective politics, working with a legislature, passing laws, the judiciary, law, overseeing bureaucracies of any size, war, defense, macroeconomics, emergency planning and organization, health care, responding to an electorate, winning elections ... I could go on and on.

That Oprah Winfrey, one year into the constitutional crisis of the Trump presidency, would be considered a credible candidate for president is evidence of serious rot at the heart of the body politic. Americans no longer seem to have any idea what a democracy is or how to sustain it. Voters and reporters whine that dysfunction wracks DC, and then approvingly consider solutions like Trump and Winfrey. Uggh.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

The Cannabis Wars


Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole memo this morning—the Obama-era guideline that directed federal law enforcement to leave cannabis businesses alone in states where they were legal. That’s obviously terrible policy because the DOJ doesn’t have the bodies or money to stop legal cannabis, so the best Sessions can do is act as a kind of legal terrorist, capriciously enforcing federal law on some businesses to scare the others. (A technique used by ICE among undocumented immigrants.)
But there’s a bigger issue here. The large majority of Americans have voted for some level of legal cannabis and something like a quarter live in states where it has been fully legalized. Then there are a group of people who believe cannabis is almost uniquely dangerous, has no medical benefit, and must be stamped out at all costs. This is backed by federal law. The Cole memo just papered over this gigantic divide and delayed a reckoning.

Perhaps because most leaders are still old, but I have been *shocked* how little federal candidates refuse to deal with the issue. It’s never come up in a Presidential election and is still treated as a Cheech and Chong joke to most politicians when it comes up. (Not, of course, in states where it has been legalized.) Why hasn’t this become a major political issue? And why are Democrats so terrified of it?

If I were a smart Dem trying to distinguish myself in front of the 2020 primaries, I’d be all over this issue.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Democrat Wins in Alabama

Last night, Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in a special election to fill the US Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. A few random thoughts.

1. You have to compete. The Dems’ biggest tactical mistake during the Obama years was not fielding candidates. The reason Republicans dominate local offices isn’t gerrymandering—it’s because they run for everything from dogcatcher up. Dems will lose 90% of the races like this one—but that means they’ll win 10%, which could be the balance of the Senate and a few statehouses.

2. The anti-democratic mood of the GOP is disturbing. Any time things don’t go their way, they violate norms. McConnell says he’s not seating Jones until after the tax bill is voted on. Moore didn’t concede. This follows the Supreme Court theft and Trump’s threats to ignore the results if he lost. And of course Russia et al. Great win, but wins no longer seem to carry the finality we expect in democracies.

3. The core of the Democratic Party are those who are most at risk from the policies of the GOP—which means nonwhites, the impoverished and sick, the non-straight, and women. Doug Jones is a Senator because of the black vote. I hope the incessant focus on the blue-collar whites ends here. It’s great if that segment can be attracted by progressive policies—some did vote Obama. But there’s this sickness at the heart of American life that Trump and Bannon have exploited. So long as the most important thing to voters is the whiteness of the candidate’s skin, the Dems can’t pander. They just can’t expect black and Latino voters to continue to carry a party that remains racist-tolerant. (This is a controversial argument; I get that.)

4. Political gravity exists. When Trump won, it seemed to violate all the rules of politics. Republicans in particular charged into 2017 with the idea they had some kind of invulnerability shield. Moore was so blasé about this election he didn’t bother to campaign the last few days. But the rules still apply and Trump’s weird win was a flukey situation that depended on a hundred things going his way.
5. Trump is no political savant. Whatever fairy dust Republicans thought he might have had is gone. To review, he backed the loser in the primary, then backed Moore. He backed Gillespie in VA (who lost). That’s going to have repercussions in Congress. Republicans no longer have to fear he’ll be able to target them in elections back home. GOP dysfunction will increase.

6. Bannon is screwed. The GOP is using this election to throw him under the bus. They’ve been looking for a convenient excuse to do so, and he gift-wrapped this stinker for them.

7. I know in my bones we’re going to have a reaction against #metoo, but of all the forces that shaped this election, that was the greatest. It used to be that being a pig carried no risks at all; now it will clearly shave a few points off a margin. This little shaft of light delights me.

8. The Senate hangs in the balance. Dems have the longest of shots to retake the Senate (they have to win in either NV or AZ *and* defend all their own seats), but it’s a bit more plausible this morning. And it really helps in terms of resources. They don’t have to burn through funds trying to win in TX or TN for their 51st state. Those are now just gravy.

9. The GOP is not a governing party. They’re a collection of grievance candidates, anti-government radicals, and big-money toadies. Their factions (firmly swamp vs drain-the-swamp) were already irreconcilable. This makes things worse and gives the (dwindling) non-insane moderate faction in the Senate a lot more power. I’ll be watching to see whether this makes that atrocious tax package more likely (because they have to rush it through for that elusive “win”) or less likely (because there’s less cover for the Collinses and McCains). Future legislation seems highly unlikely.

Very interesting moment in American politics.